Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Wis 7:7-11; Heb 4:12-13; Mk 10:17-27 ]

In yesterday's gospel Jesus told a crowd that, as blessed as His own mother is the person “who hears the word of God and observes it.” In last week's gospel, Jesus re-interprets a section of the law and calls for its observance. Today He sets aside the law and calls the man who sincerely seeks eternal life to faithfulness to the person of Jesus Christ; to leave all and follow Him. We are being shown that the Call is not one of observance, but of intention.

Jesus is telling us that it is important to be deliberate about our intention in living our life. In today's world, the view of humanity lacks any sense of having a final end that one commits to and lives toward. One is instead supposed to be more pragmatic/practical. True and false, right and wrong, good and evil are determined by what works or doesn't work. A human life is accorded value by what one can produce, what one can do, not by what one is.

Jesus is telling this man his life is not about production; it is about dedication. Observance is an expression of dedication. Dedication means the commitment of one's whole life to something greater than that life. That “something” can only be a person and that person can only be God. One cannot dedicate self to things, to a task. We are not to spend ourselves as mere instruments of production.

Monastic life is a life of dedication; it is a vowed life. The vow is made to God, not to a job. Thomas Merton notes that the whole purpose of the vows “is to enable us to be someone, not to do something.” A major task of the new person entering the monastery is to shed the world's view of man and accept the daunting challenge of dedication. The vows will enable him to be someone who loves God and is loved by Him. The vows are oriented to the next life because God does not want what we have made (we can't take it with us!); He wants our love, our hearts so that we can enjoy His life, His freedom, and His love…for eternity.

This is what Jesus is offering the man who approaches Him in today's gospel. We would not likely identify with the man in terms of his wealth, but perhaps we would with his desire to grasp and control something in this life that he could count on; something that would give him a hedge against being overwhelmed by a sudden change in circumstances. This “something” might be a talent; it might be the positive regard of others, or it might be financial security. Whatever it may be, Jesus is telling us through this man that, in such grasping we are settling for less than what He offers us: the kingdom of God. To gain it, it is not enough to be sincere; we must be free for it. To be free we will have to renounce whatever else we rely on, whatever else we grasp and control for our security. Only One Thing can be the object of our faith, hope, and love.

Through the Church in this “Year of Faith” we are offered a way to make those renunciations, to empty ourselves and thus be free to live toward our true end in life. That way is the way of dedication. The vowed life, monastic or marital, is one way of dedication, but it is no less available to those in the single state. Self-dedication is the true way to fulfillment. It is the commitment of the heart, the firmness of intention that we need. A community supports that. Apart from this dedication we are left like the man in the gospel: we keep our riches and we keep our sadness.

Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Is 25:6-10a; Phil 4:12-14, 19-20; Mt 22:1-14]

During the summer of 1992 as part of my preparation for priestly ordination, I was required to have a ministry experience in a chaplain, and signed up for a program at a mental hospital in Indiana where, for three months, I ministered to people suffering from very severe mental illnesses. On the staff at the hospital was a psychiatrist who had distinguished herself with research into the treatment of mental illnesses by medications; medications she mixed together in ways no one had ever imagined before. As a chemist, she was something of a genius. She was also famous, although years spent refining various mixtures of chemicals hadn’t done much to enhance her social skills which were, by common consensus, pretty under developed.

One of my seminarian friends was intrigued by the woman’s story, and he wanted to meet her — was actually quite determined to meet her, in spite of warnings from the staff that she was a bit eccentric and would probably not appreciate him paying an unsolicited visit to her office. My friend, choosing to ignore these cautionary words, decided one morning, on the spur of the moment, to knock on the door of the famous doctor, walked in to her office with a winning smile; introduced himself, and extended to her the hand of friendship . . . in response to which she said not a word, reached for the phone, and called the police.

After acquitting himself of any crime in a short interview with a uniformed police officer, my friend and I drove home and we marveled at the doctor’s behavior. Could anyone be so incapable of welcoming and dealing with an unexpected visitor that they felt they must call in law enforcement? Did this woman suppose she had enclosed herself off from the future and all it’s possibilities in a cocoon so secure that no person or event would ever surprise her again? Could anyone really think that way? I wonder, are we ourselves maybe somewhat inclined to think that way? How many of us tend to think about the future as something quite passive in relation to the plans we have made and the goals we have set for ourselves. Do we think the future is passive? Do we imagine the future is at our disposal and is not supposed to surprise us, as though life was a party we had very carefully planned and arranged, and the future was an empty sink waiting for the dirty dishes when the party is over? Do we think the future is passive, that it just lies there like a hole, waiting for us to fill it in with the events of a life we have made for ourselves?

That would be a little crazy, but it is actually how the people in today’s gospel are behaving. As Jesus tells the parable, the King’s Son has just been married. The King, is rejoicing, and decides to give a banquet to celebrate his son’s wedding day. This is a big event; a really big event! It may not have been an event that people anticipated, or that they have any control over—but the day is here. The king’s son has been married. Note that, in the parable, the future is active; it rises up, and comes to meet the townspeople in a way which may not fit in with their plans. That’s the point of the parable.

But Jesus isn’t talking here about just any king. It is clear, the “king” he speaks of is God, and that Jesus himself is the King’s “son”, the only begotten Son of God, and that his coming into the world; His incarnation, is the wedding; the Son of God has been wedded to humanity. Jesus coming into the world is “the wedding” that the Father wants to celebrate with a “banquet”; a feast which is the newly inaugurated Kingdom of love. The banquet is prepared. It’s time to celebrate. Now note: the danger at this moment is not to say “No” to the invitation. Rather, the townspeople in the parable seem quite oblivious of the event. They completely fail to grasp the import of the wedding: the one going off to work in his field, the other going off to conduct business; Some abusing and killing the messengers as if they were their servants instead of the kings. These people behave as if the future was a carpet laid out before them, to be walked over in the pursuit of their private affairs. It seems to have never entered their heads that the future is alive, that it might rise up and act upon them; that God is their future and that God, the living God, might surprise them.

The parable proceeds to describe a very harsh, even violent reaction on the part of the King who, enraged, destroys those ungrateful townspeople and sets fire to their city. This doesn’t sound like the behavior of a loving Father. But Jesus is revealing to us here a vitally important truth: if our future is God, and God is love, then the future is not passive. The future rises up; it comes to us and acts upon us. The future draws near and addresses us as a Person, a Person who loves us. Now, Love is not violent. Love is gentle and forgiving, inclusive and reconciling. But if you cruising through life on the assumption that the future is a carpet lain on the floor in front of you to be walked over, then when the future rises up, and you are addressed by Love, you trip and you collide with Love! You and Love are moving in different directions, so that, when the great day arrives, you do not meet—you collide with Love. And though it may seem counter-intuitive, going the wrong direction, and suddenly colliding with Love can feel like a painful even violent experience. It is the experience we call “judgment”.

Brothers and sisters, today is the day. This is the day the Son is wedded to humanity. The Eucharist we’re about to celebrate is the feast; the banquet the Father has prepared to celebrate the incarnation of his Son. You’re coming to the feast is the means for you to rejoice with the Father. It is why the Son came into the world—that you and I might feast and be filled with the life and love of the Father! Did you have plans today? Jesus is saying to you: “Keep your calendar open, and on a day very soon, your calendar may jump off the table, and open you to the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, to love and to a destiny beyond any happiness you ever imagined for yourself.”

Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Is 25:6-10a; Phil 4:12-14, 19-20; Mt 22:1-14 ]

In Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, a young orphan boy, Oliver, is forced to work in a nineteenth century English factory. He and his hungry companions dream of heavenly banquets saying, “Food, glorious food! We’re anxious to try it. Three banquets a day-Our favorite diet! Oh, food, wonderful food, marvelous food. Don’t care what it looks like. Don’t care what the cook’s like. Just thinking of growing fat our senses go reeling, one moment of knowing that full-up feeling! Food, glorious food, magical food, wonderful food, beautiful food.” Naively, young Oliver carries his empty plate to Mr. Bumble and asks, “Please, Sir, I want some more.” Mr. Bumble turns pale and gazes in stupefied astonishment at the small rebel and says, “What!” Oliver repeats, “Please, Sir, I want some more.” There is general horror on every face. Mr. Bumble shouts, “More? Snatch him! Catch him!” The cry went ’round: “Hold him! Scold him! Pounce him! Trounce him! Pick him up and bounce him! Never before has a boy wanted more! [He] won’t ask for more when he knows what’s in store.” Near starvation, and suffering from physical abuse, Oliver finally runs away to London where he is swept up into the criminal gang of Fagin’s thieves.

Charles Dickens was accused of glamorizing crime in this story about Oliver Twist. But his purpose was to present the hardships faced by the poor, the dispossessed and the castoffs of society. An old proverb says, “I’ been rich and I’ been poor, and believe me rich is better.” But Dickens learned from a greater storyteller, from Jesus, that true riches are interior. The poor in workhouses and along the highways and byways who are richer in compunction and purity of heart are better prepared for a royal wedding banquet than those who are preoccupied with a farm or a business, who neglect preparing themselves for the wedding feast of the king’s son.

In all cultures a wedding is the happiest of all celebrations. In Jesus’ time the celebration lasted not just for one day, but for seven days. Guests came and went during a whole week of feasting and dancing. The less well-to-do might run out of wine after a few days, but that would never happen at the seven day wedding banquet for a king’s son. Like in the dream of Oliver and his hungry companions, there would be, “Food, glorious food! Just picture a great big steak-fried, roasted or stewed. What is there more handsome? Gulped, swallowed or chewed? Food! Eat right through the menu. Just loosen your belt … Food, glorious food.” Who could resist it? Who would want to? Who could not find some time during seven days of celebration to come to such a feast? Yet, Jesus says the invited guests refused to come. Some even mistreated and killed the messengers. It’s an unreal story! It’s inconceivable that an invitation to the wedding feast of a king’s son could be turned down like that. But this is really a story about the kingdom of heaven.

Reality is often stranger and more tragic than fiction. Jesus is teaching that unlimited joy in the kingdom of heaven with rich food and choice wines at an eternal wedding feast is being refused. This is a story about true riches. While God’s gracious invitation is being rejected in preference for the riches of this world, the Oliver Twists of the highways and byways who lack the necessities of life but hear God’s call, willingly bring their needs to Him saying, “Please, Lord, I want some more,” Lacking earthly goods, they more easily hunger for eternal goods, for the heavenly wedding feast.

In this parable, Jesus not only encourages us to desire heaven but also to fear hell. If hunger for the fullness of life does not motivate us to choose the kingdom of heaven, then we need a realistic fear of hell. In the parable, the burning of the city foretells the total destruction of Jerusalem, burned by the Romans in 70 AD. It also symbolizes the interior landscape of everyone who refuses to prepare for the great wedding feast, whose choices are self-destructive. In the parable, one man came without a wedding garment. His ordinary clothes reflect his interior, his unprepared heart. He had days to prepare himself and did not do it. So the king says, “Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Jesus repeats this fearful warning six times in the Gospel of Matthew, telling us there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt. 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30). St. Bernard describes his own fear of hell in Sermon Sixteen on the Song of Songs. He writes, “I dread the thought of hell … Terror unnerves me at … the crash of a world tumbling to ruin, the immense fires and uncontrollable storm … I am terrified of the fangs of the monster, the pit … where demons roar as they devour. I recoil in horror from the gnawing worm, the rolling fires, the smoke and sulfurous mist, the whirling storms, the encroaching vastness of the dark. Who will turn my head into a fountain, and my eyes into a spring of tears, that I may forestall the weeping and gnashing of teeth, the unyielding shackles on hands and feet, the heavy bonds that burn and never consume?” In another sermon he writes, “Let us go down into hell alive now, so that after death we may escape it(Miscellaneous Sermons, On the Five Places of Spiritual Traffic).

Oh, Hell.” Little seven year old Jacinta Marto of Fatima, said it again, “Oh, Hell. How sorry I am for souls that go there.” Then she prayed as the Virgin Mary taught her, “Oh, my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are in most need.” Tomorrow is the 91st anniversary of the apparitions at Fatima. During these visions three young children, Jacinta, Francisco, and Lucia, saw hell. After that they lost all fear of sufferings and poverty on earth, and they began to pray and do penance for others.

In today’s parable of the wedding feast, Jesus teaches us that we need the desire for heaven and the fear of hell to help us through the dangers of this life so that we do not self-destruct by our preoccupations, by negligently turning away from our place at the eternal wedding feast. And what is our place at that feast? It is that of the bride being married to the King’s Son. It is our own wedding we are being called to attend, and it is our love that the King’s Son most desires! Our Eucharist this morning with Christ who is our Food, our glorious Food, is a foretaste and promise of our heavenly union with Christ, our bridegroom, at the eternal wedding feast.

Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: 2Kgs. 5: 14-17; 2Tim. 2: 8-13; Lk. 17: 11-19]

One of the themes that stands out for me in this morning’s readings is the effectiveness of trusting in God’s word. Naaman dipped himself into the Jordan River “at the word of the man of God” and was healed of his leprosy. In the gospel the ten lepers were cleansed as they obeyed Jesus’ word to show themselves to the priests. St. Paul sums this up when he tells Timothy that the words of an early Christian hymn are trustworthy when they proclaim that Jesus always remains faithful. Jesus remains faithful and the words of God that he has brought us remain trustworthy.

This stands in contrast to many of the words that surround us. The exaggerated claims of advertisers and the unfilled promises of those running for public office often lead to disappointment and disillusionment. Preconceived agendas can slant the reports we read and hear in the news media. At a more personal level gossip and rumors distort reality and can do serious harm to someone’s reputation.

I don’t want to paint too pessimistic a portrait of our communication, but the distortions that our communications sometimes produce can lead to a subtle and pervasive skepticism in regard to everything we read and hear. This is more than a prudent reserve in accepting everything that comes our way. This skepticism can unconsciously carry over to our reading and hearing the word of God. Our behavior can sometimes manifest an underlying attitude that God’s word really doesn’t apply to me at a practical level. Yet God’s word is meant to guide our lives at a practical level.

This is not a plea for fundamentalism. The Church has been clear that scripture needs to be interpreted for our times and situations. Many of today’s editions of the Bible have adequate and easy to read introductions and footnotes. On the other hand it isn’t necessary to become quasi-scripture scholars in order to understand most of what the word of God is teaching us. The message in this morning’s readings to show our gratitude to God for his kindness to us is clear enough. It isn’t necessary to do advanced study to understand Jesus’ saying about noticing the speck in our brother’s or sister’s eye and missing the log in our own. It is necessary to take an honest look at ourselves.

God’s word is light and it is meant to enlighten our lives. We need to be willing to walk in the truth of its light. This may reveal some characteristics about ourselves that we would prefer to avoid, but God’s word is also a healing word. It will be effective in healing our faults to the extent that we approach the word of God with humility and honesty. Ultimately God’s word is the good news that we are called to eternal happiness with God. God’s word not only announces good news, it also gives us words to express our praise and gratitude to God for what he has done for us. It is up to us to take God’s word seriously and to use it effectively.

Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Wis 7:7-11; Heb 4:12-13; Mk 10:17-27 ]

One day when I was about ten or eleven years old, I painted a picture and, being excited about the results, brought it immediately to my father to show him. Taking my little painting in his hands he studied it a moment, glanced at me, looked again at the painting and said, with genuine surprise: “You did this?” “Yes”, I assured him, “I did that—all by myself!” He looked at the picture for another moment or two, and said: “Amazing.” And then, as if speaking to himself said very softly: “I couldn’t do this.”

The moment was for me a triumph followed immediately by a crisis. It was fascinating to me, almost unbelievable—that on the strength of my father’s own testimony, I had done something, he could not do. At age eleven, my father was God for me, he could do anything. I don’t think I ever seriously considered the possibility that there was anything my father couldn’t do. But there it was, from his own mouth. I now had to my credit at least one achievement which my father did not, and, for me, the world changed that day.

But I wasn’t immediately comfortable in this new world. Along with the discovery of my father’s limitations, came the first glimpse of my own true destiny in the world. I began to understand that I would not spend my whole life as my father’s little boy. I would grow up; I would emulate my father and one day become a father to others, and in some particular ways, maybe, even surpass my father. All that was fine with me. I had no problem with any of that. But, hidden in all this was a more sobering truth. Just as my father, was acknowledging his limits; limits that would one day be realized as he aged, and grew weak, became sick and died, so I, being conformed to him, would likewise enjoy my prime in life, and, having become a father, would myself experience decline become weak and sick and one day die. On that day when I was eleven, I got the good news and the bad news about my personal destiny and it was the same news. In a word, I was to be conformed to my father.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus is addressing himself to a beloved spiritual son; a son, who in some ways, is still a child, something like I was that day when I was eleven. An attentive reader of this gospel can see Jesus being like a loving father to this fervent young man; receiving him, loving him, affirming him, and finally, challenging him with a vision of his ultimate destiny; a vision it is going to be hard for this particular young man to look at. Jesus says to the young man: “Follow me“. He means: “Be conformed to me; Be as I am in everything—and to the very end.” When the young man first addresses him as “good teacher“, Jesus challenges him: “Why do you call me good—God alone is good.” If I am good, then you make me God the Father, but I am the Son, but you are not son of the Son, you are called to be a son of God, as I myself am the first born and eternal Son of God. This dignity as son is offered you by Father Himself. Receive it, claim it, and celebrate it.

This is the good news given the young man for his encouragement. What follows is harder for him to hear. “Go“, Jesus says, “Go, and divest yourself of everything you possess and follow me—that is, be completely conformed to me.” Jesus is going to die; he is going to die the death of a poor man alone and despised, and in this way manifest to the world the almighty love of God. He looks at this young man; loves him, and invites him to the unique intimacy of being completely conformed to the pattern of his own life and especially his suffering in the Paschal Mystery.

Brothers and sisters, this is an invitation extended to each of us. To learn about Christianity; to acquaint oneself with the church’s teaching; participate in her liturgies and engage the social life of the church—all this belongs to the childhood, or preparation stage of Catholic faith. Ultimately, these are all means for disposing us to receive a very personal invitation from the Lord Himself, namely—the invitation to be conformed to him; to make our lives and our very selves over again after the pattern of his own living and suffering. At the beginning of our faith journey we are all like the man in today’s gospel: “rich” in the possession of assumptions that we are forever going to live like happy little children. Like the man in the gospel, we are all “young” in our tendency to displace responsibility for our destiny upon others. Today, Jesus addresses us as children of God on the threshold of spiritual adulthood, and says, “Grow up. Follow me!”

Sadly, this young man seems incapable of accepting Jesus invitation, because of attachment to worldly possessions. He falters, puts off Jesus’ invitation and goes away sad. But we needn’t consider this the end of the young man’s story. The Prodigal Son of the parable was a rich young man who, at one point in his life, squandered the inheritance of a father’s love. But, as someone once said, the love of God is like gravity, and one brazen enough to be indifferent to this force, doesn’t defy it, he demonstrates it.
And so, the Prodigal Son, an ungrateful and foolish boy became in the end and enduring symbol for all of us of God’s enduring and unconditional love.

May your life and my life be a parable of that tender love of the Father for each of his children, proclaimed to us in this morning’s gospel.

Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: 2Kgs. 5: 14-17; 2Tim. 2: 8-13; Lk. 17: 11-19]

Fr. NeilThe first word that came to mind when I was reflecting on this mornings readings was gratitude; gratitude to God and then gratitude for acceptance. I suspect that few, if any of us, have experience exclusion to the extent that lepers were ostracized in biblical times. They were excluded from their family and friends, and from communal worship. For a devout Jew this meant exclusion from God’s chosen people. Yet, at one time or another most of us have probably been left out of some group or activity that we wanted to participate in. If our desire to participate was strong and the exclusion was protracted, or perhaps permanent, we know the loneliness and perhaps the sense of shame that can accompany being excluded.

Does our experience of rejection elicit compassion for others who we see rejected? What is our attitude toward racial and ethnic minorities; toward the materially or personally impoverished; toward those who for one reason or another society tends to push to the sidelines, if not out of awareness? It is significant that these are precisely the people that Jesus reached out to. Jesus not only healed lepers, he touched them. He ate with tax collectors and sinners. He welcomed the outcasts of society. His compassion extended beyond the limits of Israel to non-Jews and even to Roman soldiers. Jesus came to announce good news, and the good news is that no one is excluded from the kingdom of God except those who exclude themselves.

Love and accept one anotherIf we have experienced the loneliness of rejection, how have we experienced being accepted? That is probably the more common experience. Is it so common that we take it for granted? It is far too easy to become preoccupied with the times when life does not go according to our wishes and take for granted the blessings that we have received. Do we reflect on the good things that God has done for us and give him thanksgiving and praise? Do we show gratitude to those through whom God’s blessings come to us? Or are we so concerned with what we don’t have that we don’t take the time to appreciate and enjoy what we do have?

True, there is much suffering in the world and in varying degrees we share in the world’s suffering. Because of his gratitude for what Christ had done for him, St. Paul could rejoice even in his suffering. Most of the early Christians were the outcasts of their society, but the joy of God’s acceptance far outweighed rejection by those who could offer social acceptance-for a price. Acceptance by God offers us the freedom to open our hearts to everyone who enters our lives and to share God’s acceptance with them. The Eucharist we share this morning is a sign of God’s invitation to his kingdom. Let us show our gratitude by offering God thanksgiving and praise, and when we leave our celebration put our gratitude into practice by sharing it with those we meet.