Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings: Is 66:13-21;  Heb 12:5-7,11-13; Lk 13:22-30

I remember the old “Jack Benny Radio Program” which would repeat some regular routines.  In one of them, a husky voice would call out to Jack:  “Hey, you.”  He would always say: “Who, me?”  Then: “Yeah, you.”  The character would have some special deal to offer to Jack who couldn’t resist an easy way to make money.  This was a very typical portrayal of the way a confidence man would act.  He first establishes a bond of trust and confidence, then they appeal to a vulnerability in the “mark” and work to exploit that vulnerability.  They might appeal to their gullibility, their greed, to a fantasy of making easy money without having to work for it.  This is a “unique opportunity” and “you have to act fast” to take advantage of some else’s misfortune.

Much of our advertising and marketing really doesn’t rise much above this level of “confidence men.” They are ready to give you this great deal on a product which will boost your poor public image, made you likeable and acceptable, and will thus include you in the in group of society.  To become an insider is already a form of salvation, of security, of being raised above the anonymous crowd.  Our group is the norm to be followed and imitated by all other lesser groups.  Our culture and way of looking at reality become the norm for everyone.  Our habits and structures become extensions of our selves, mirrors in which we can see ourselves reflected, increasing our sense of confidence and security.

But the story Jesus tells in the Gospel upends and overturns this convincing economy we have constructed.  This is an economy we apply even to our spiritual and religious self-understanding.  The first are first because they have earned and deserved it. That is the whole point of being first.  But Jesus keeps saying the first will be last.  The insider will be outside.  The insider can rattle off his credentials for entrance, but will find the door closed and locked.  Those who were “last” (the outcast, the marginal, the disqualified) are inside enjoying the fruits of the Kingdom.  “I’ve been had!”  “I’ve been conned.”  But perhaps he has conned himself.  He has placed his confidence on the correctness of his behavior and his thinking.  It is this confidence that Jesus reveals as groundless.  “We ate and drank with you.  We listened to you when you preached in our streets. We were consumers, but were left untouched and unchanged.  We knew proximity, without effect or transformation.  Your word did not really change our lives. Last Friday at the profession ceremony of Sr. Anna of Mississippi Abbey, we  prayed twice that the rites would have an inner effect: through the Holy Spirit whom you send as a gift bring to inward purity the outward rite which we perform.  The very presence of Christ in his Spirit, opus operato, cannot be effective without the inward willingness and transformation of the opus operantis.

Jesus upends the theological questions we have (will only a few be saved?  How can I be sure that I will be saved?) and speaks to the practical and imperative heart of the matter. “Strive to enter by the narrow gate.”  We are still pilgrims and members of this vast throng that God is calling to Himself.  We live in dependence on his grace forming our lives.  The confidence we have in his Spirit lets us acknowledge that congenital vulnerability and need in us which cries out for a savior.  In his treatise On Loving God, St. Bernard tells us to look into our souls and recognize their greatness: we are children of God, sharers in His life and grace.  “Recognize your greatness and privilege, he says, “but then acknowledge that none of this comes from yourself.  That grace which is not known as gifted by God and which does not flow into acts of virtue and love then will not distinguish us from the beasts of the field.” This is an opportunity you can’t pass by. Act now.

Cardinal Newman has said that “to be at ease in this life is to be unsafe.  To seek comfort, security, and superiority can jeopardize the real safety which is salvation.   It is a painful awakening to be freed from false confidence which seeks to escape pain and uncertainty.  The trials we experience can be endured as discipline, as transformative acts in which God is present and preparing us for life in the Kingdom.  The labor and agony (strive) of discipline work to reform and reshape us so that we may enter through the narrow gate.  Our confidence in our own accomplishments, successes, identifications, or belonging to elite cultural groups block passage into the banquet where the misfits, outcasts, aliens find easier access.  Those who pass through the narrow gate have learned, through discipline and suffering, “amid the uncertainties of this life, to fix their hearts on that place where true gladness is found” (Opening Collect).  They already live from the vision they have received and share with God.

“The salvation which God has wrought, and the Church joyfully proclaims, is for everyone. God has found a way to unite himself to every human being in every age.  He has chosen to call them together as a people and not as isolated individuals.  No one is saved by himself or herself, individually, or by his or her own efforts.  God attracts us by taking into account the complex interweaving of personal relationships entailed in the life of a human community.  This people which God has chosen and called is the Church.  Jesus did not tell the apostles to form an exclusive and elite group.  He said: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19).  (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel)


Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Is 66:18-21; Heb 12:5-7, 11-13; Lk 13:22-30]

Hymns and songs often have refrains, which return us to a main or central theme. There is a refrain which keeps recurring in the Gospels: Jesus rebukes his disciples. He rebuked Peter (and called him “Satan”); a few verses earlier in Luke's gospel, he tells them they are “very wrong;” he says, “Do you still not understand? You of little faith.” These were men especially chosen, who were attracted to Jesus and what he said, who lived in close companionship with him, and yet did not understand what he was trying to say and to do. Only a rebuke or shocking jolt could jar them loose from their own ways of thinking.

The disciples had inherited expectations of the Kingdom of God from their religious milieu. The Kingdom was to be the exoneration and exaltation of God's chosen people who had been oppressed for so long. This would be the vindication and triumph of this nation, an “in your face” moment to leave the other nations in the dust. “Will you now restore the Kingdom?” “Give us seats in your Kingdom.” Their concepts and categories conditioned them to look for the realization of the Kingdom in very immanent terms, very concrete manifestations of God's rule finally dominating the nations.

We are not so different from them. We consider ourselves to be privileged insiders, those to whom the Kingdom has been given, those who have been redeemed and are entitled to enter the Kingdom if we don't make any big mistakes. We daily pray “thy Kingdom come” and have no doubts that we are ready for it. It forms a celestial superstructure, a transcendent backdrop “out there” which is waiting to develop into the realization of our best hopes and our best selves. That will then be our entry into the Banquet prepared for us.

For those who have ears to hear, the parable in today's gospel should come as a rebuke, as a slap to our complacency and self-assurance. It quite pulls the rug out from under the feet of our confidence that we will recognize the Kingdom and that we will be recognized as valid participants. In terms of our concepts and categories, it doesn't make sense. We are told to struggle to enter through a narrow door, but that even the strong may not be able to enter. All the legitimizing credentials of listening to Christ's teaching, celebrating in familiarity with him, may have failed to allow us to pass the test of being recognized as part of God's family. “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me.” “You yourselves will be cast out.” How did these masses of people, even those from the most despised nations of the world, merit to be included while the “privileged” have been excluded? Why did everyone else hear the bell, but the latecomers find a locked door? We can even find ourselves sympathizing with them as victims of unfairness.

Parables don't have nice, neat “morals” that we can distill and then skillfully apply to daily life. This is not just a threat to “do good” while there is still time. Nor is it a warning to persevere in obedience to God, even though others seem to be getting a free pass in life. Much less is it counsel to take it easy and rely on the mercy of God. It seems to me that this parable is a rebuke to any moral stance that is revealed as being grounded and closed in itself. In his treatise On Loving God, St. Bernard tells us to look into our souls and recognize their greatness: we are children of God, sharers in his life and grace. Recognize your greatness and privilege, he says, but then acknowledge that none of that comes from yourself. That grace which is not known as gifted by God and which does not flow into acts of virtue and love, he says, then will not distinguish us from the beasts of the field.

The rebuke of the parable is meant to awaken us to the realization that the gift of mercy and grace is being given to us. It is a gift meant to open us as overwhelmed witnesses and agents of this mercy. It is not a possession which is an assurance of credit. It is the very person of God who is not separate from his “gift” and who intends to work through this gift for the gifting and gracing of all he wishes to save. The gifts of grace are the touches of God which bring healing and hope to us precisely where the pain of isolation and self-destruction gnaw at us. The rebuke reawakens that pain in reopening ourselves to that relationship with God that heals and saves. The rebuke says there is something in us which needs healing, which can be healed, and is worth saving. It heals that inner passion and self-preoccupation which blind us to the presence and grace of God.

The “narrow gate” is, I think, life which is lived in dependence on that grace. To pass through the narrow gate means laying down the accretions, accomplishments, and defenses that we think distinguish ourselves. It is a call to a real displacement of our ego. It is a struggle, but a struggle to live from the freedom we have through the grace of Christ. It is a struggle which pares us down to the size that is conformed to the size of Christ, the door and gate into the Kingdom. This is where we are to “come from.” Our entry into the Kingdom is made possible by living in obedience to that manifestation of humanity brought into our world by Christ. We discover our own humanity in him, and become able to discover that one humanity in all people. The door was locked, but we discover that we had locked the door and thus had been left outside. The invitation is to become instruments of that relentless love which opens doors and knows no bounds.

Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69 ]

Fr. Michael Casey, in his new book on monastic formation, notes that many who enter monasteries today have had significant and even profound adult conversion experiences. Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar notes that the Church is strengthened by each “yes” to Christ, by each conversion. This is something to be welcomed and built upon, rather than regarded with suspicion. The gospels often teach the mystery that repentance is better than righteousness, because “there is more joy in heaven” (Lk 15:7) over the repentant, to whom Jesus gave preferential attention (Matt. 9:13). Today's readings give us significant insights into the conversion experience.

Today we conclude Ch. 6 of John's gospel which began with Jesus feeding a crowd of 5,000 who knew they were lacking. Jesus seems to be more comfortable with smaller groups “Where two or three are gathered in my name.” So He thins out the crowd as He has often done before. On the way to Jerusalem He turned to the crowd following Him and said, “Whoever does not hate father and mother … and does not take up his cross … cannot follow me.” And many left him. Today He tells the crowd that they can only go to the Father by eating His flesh and drinking His blood and thus receiving eternal life. And the crowd got thinner. What differentiates the winners from the losers in these incidents?

The reading from Joshua gives us a clue. Joshua addresses the Israelites, reviews all that God has done for them in bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, and calls on them to make a decision. Doubtless St. Bernard had this in mind when he wrote that conversion requires knowledge of one's misery apart from God and subsequently coming to know and experience the love of God. Having had these experiences, the Israelites declare that they have decided to serve the Lord rather than other gods. They list their reasons, the first and foremost being that God saved them from misery and slavery.

They also note that He performed great miracles for them, favorable events that they could not achieve by their own cleverness or power. They recall His protection of them on their journey out of slavery when they were dazed, and didn't know what to do with freedom.

In short, they chose to dedicate their lives to serving the Lord God because they remembered what it was like, what happened, and what it's like now. What it was like, what happened, and what it's like now is the fruit of the conversion experience; it is what happens when one “turns.” Knowing this is a mark of a winner.

Our Responsorial Psalm told us that “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; those whose spirit is crushed, He will save.” And our lectionary response is: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” In the bible, to taste means to experience. To see means to take the experience into ones heart. A man never forgets a taste; he never forgets an experience taken into his heart. For a man who has had such a conversion experience, there is never a day in his life when he does not recall what it was like, what happened, and what it's like now. He remembers the protection he was given prior to the miracle when he was becoming convinced that he would never find inner peace on his own and needed a miracle. And he recalls the miracle: the moment when he had a change in his perceptions and affections; a change of heart. The miracle happened when he was able to swallow his pride and accept something he knew he did not deserve; when he received what it was literally impossible to pay for. Knowing this is a mark of a winner.

With this experience in mind one makes the decision that Joshua calls for, and with Peter says, “Lord, to whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life!” In other words, “I wandered among lies as soon as I was born” (Ps 59:4) and now with You Lord, I get to live in the truth everyday! Knowing this is a mark of a winner.

The child-like “I get to … !” shows the gratitude which marks the rest of a person's life after a conversion. One becomes driven as the apostles were by the resurrection. Yet, conversion does not exempt one from adversity. Perhaps the most important word in the Joshua account today is “WE”. It was in community that each man and woman was saved and it is in community that gratitude must be shown. It was in community that the Israelites remembered the saving event and told it to the next generation. Gratitude goes forward, not backward. Shared gratitude for what has affected us defines a spiritual community.

Jesus says the repentant occasion's joy; He does not say the Righteous are inferior. Indeed, the Repentant in a community must admire the Righteous and emulate them if they are to continue to grow in the image and likeness of God. Both have much to learn from each other: the righteous love God in Himself; the repentant love God as savior when they remember what it was like, what happened, and what it's like now.

Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Josh 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69]

Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, who was beheaded because he refused to acknowledge Henry as head of the church of England instead of the Pope, is supposed to have said in his last words: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Leon Bloy, the Catholic novelist, was dying and asked what he was feeling at the very point of death. He answered: “An overwhelming curiosity.” The English humorist and playwright, Oscar Wilde, (a rather different sort of Englishman than Thomas More), had a maddeningly unpredictable sense of humor even to the very end. The story is told, I don’t know if it’s true, that, lying very near the point of death, Oscar Wilde turned on his pillow and stared a moment at the window. “Who’s responsible for the curtains?” he faintly muttered to the nurse. She told him, the new housekeeper had hung the curtains, to which, Oscar Wilde replied, with the last words he ever spoke: “Either she goes, or I go.

How a person goes out of this world, his final departure, the very last words on his lips, all of this says a lot about how he lived and the very particular kind of person he became in the process.

Jesus went out of this world a naked and despised man; his body bleeding with multiple wounds inflicted upon him by human hate; his reputation intact, as a failure and a criminal. But the scene at Golgotha was, of course, not Jesus’ final departure from us. He would be back. Jesus finally and definitively took leave of this world only at his ascension; a very different scene than Good Friday. By his ascension into heaven, Jesus’ mission and very person were confirmed and gloriously vindicated by Almighty God. We are apt to forget that Jesus’ ascension into heaven was a bodily ascension. Jesus did not depart this world as some sort of shapeless soul. Jesus took leave of us; departed this world and went to heaven in his body. A famous painting by Nicholas Bertin shows the disciples looking up at the sky, and two stubby feet protruding from the top of the picture frame. It is a curious image, but it does accurately illustrate the belief we profess: Jesus ascended, and is seated at the right hand of his Father in his human body!

The disciples would see Jesus vindicated in the end but not before. At the moment related in today’s gospel, most of Jesus’ followers are beginning to find him to be just a bit much. Avery Dulles, the distinguished Catholic theologian, has pointed out that, the gospels make clear, Jesus was the sort of person who people could hate; really, hate . . . and many who actually met Jesus, did hate him, because of his occasionally outrageous behavior, and his very peculiar, unprecedented religious teachings which he spoke as one with authority. Dulles goes further and says that, many people who, today, make Jesus out to be some sort of likable, easy-going, and gentle-hearted moralist, had they actually met Jesus, probably would have hated him too. Is Dulles exaggerating? Imagine a man, (by all appearances an ordinary man), saying to you: “He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood will live forever.” What would your own reaction be to a man who spoke to you like that?

Jesus was well aware that what he was saying would be hard for people to hear, and that he would need to somehow validate what he was saying. In today’s gospel, Jesus validates his claim to be food and drink for his disciples, and in a manner most striking and unexpected. He says to them: “Does it shake your faith” to hear me say this? “What if you saw me ascend to where I was before?” Now, if they can “see” Jesus ascending to heaven, it means he is ascending bodily. Listen to what Jesus is saying: “Are you shocked to hear me say, my body and blood is food for you? What if you saw my body raised up to heaven?

What is Jesus saying to the disciples? He is showing them a vision. Jesus is revealing to them a vision of his ascension. He is inviting them to look at a vision of a Love so creative, so efficacious, and so absolutely victorious over every creature that would resist it, that everything in creation is being drawn up by this Love, drawn up into intimacy with Love Himself. In this vision, Jesus, his body, his wounds, and the whole wretched human race whose sin inflicted those wounds; everything, everything is being drawn in one unimaginable ascending movement upward to heaven, as if all creation had been swept up in a lover’s embrace and was being pressed to the Heart that is the source of all love.

Jesus is inviting each of us here and now to this very communion with God. In Jesus’ ascension, our rising up with Jesus is made possible in the eucharistic bread and wine we are about to consume. Fix the eye of faith on Jesus’ ascending bodily to the right hand of his Father, and know that what Jesus has said is the truth: “My flesh and my blood are food, and he or she who eats this food will live forever!