Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings: Gen 2:18-24; Heb 2:9-11; Mt 10:2-16

I must correct our first reading from Genesis. We can eliminate the first paragraph and substitute, “After God made man, He stood back, looked him over, and said, ‘I can do better than that!’ And He made woman!”

He made woman as a “suitable partner”. She was suitable because, like the man and unlike the animals, she was given life by the breath of God.

Because loyalty is reciprocal, suitability has to be mutual. Suitable for what? Suitable to help each other live a life of charity. Man and woman were made with a natural inclination for the good and the true. This inclination disposed them for charity, for self-forgetfulness in pursuit of the good of the other. Prior to the fall, this was primarily shown through the marital act that is uniquely and singularly designed as an act that displays the unity of this charity and creates new life to continue it. In this act, by pursuing the good of the other, one’s own good is assured. It need not be deliberately or selfishly sought. After the fall, we were no longer free to do this easily and joyfully. How will we regain that freedom?

Jesus again offers the example of children. “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” We are to “accept the kingdom of God like a child.” A child brings two qualities to this endeavor: freedom to be receptive and an attraction to the good and the true which we have called “admiration”.

The child is full of desires and plans, but free from previous ideas of how to fulfill them. She is weak-willed and impulsive. Her freedom needs to be formed.

It can be formed because first, she knows she is incomplete and dependent and second, because she is attracted to the good and the true. She is attracted because she admires—she is receptive to—the adults who exemplify these. She “accepts” the kingdom as a gift. Jesus points to childhood because our lives must be organized around an ultimate end, thus an ultimate value. That end and value is the Kingdom of God.  It reminds me of being a novice. My freedom had to be formed to a different way of life. I was attracted to the good and the true of monastic life and I admired those ahead of me who exemplified it.

The chief obstacle to this is resentment. Admiration is the opposite of resentment. They are incompatible. Resentment is not just an episode of anger at another person’s behavior or at spoiled plans. It is a distortion of value. The “good and the true” are values that lead to the kingdom; they are important-in-themselves. They are the essence of freedom. If one discounts them or misattributes them to something unworthy, one lives a delusional life. One is not free. An unfree person cannot accept the kingdom as a gift.

To accept a gift primarily as a manifestation of the heart of the giver, one must be free. One must be free to admire the good and the true. Thus, Jean Leclerq describes monastic theology as a “theology of admiration.” He writes that the monastic “studies the greatness of God in order to admire Him.”

Since freedom is the very foundation of morality and spirituality, then like children the freedom-to-accept must be formed by discipline. The discipline, though, is not child-like. It is the kind of discipline one experiences when learning a new language or a musical instrument. Freedom is formed by learning rules and techniques. They are learned from a teacher, so “discipline” primarily refers to the relationship between teacher and disciple. Discipline does not constrain freedom. The teacher conveys knowledge and forms the mind and will so that the harmony between disciple and teacher grows and so does interior freedom… freedom for excellence.

One becomes free for charity. Through formation one becomes free from value distortion and free for admiring the good and the true. One becomes free by becoming better.


Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings: Is 5:1-7; Phil 4:6-9; Mt 21:33-43

Have you ever been robbed or cheated out of something that belongs to you?  One day a secretary in a large office building took a half-hour coffee break.  She went to a local shop, asked for a small bag of chocolate chip cookies, plopped them on a table and sat down to sip cappuccino while browsing the newspaper.  When she reached out and took a cookie from the package, to her astonishment, a man sitting across the table also reached out and took a one.  She was a little upset by this, but didn’t say anything.  After all, it was only one cookie. 

A few minutes later she took another one.  Again, her table companion did the same.  Now she was getting bent out of shape.  Soon there was only one cookie left.  He broke it, took half for himself and left the other half for her.  Then he smiled, rose from the table and walked away. 

Now she was really mad!  How could he dare help himself to her cookies?  She had no problem sharing, but he wasn’t polite enough to ask and he didn’t even say, “Thank you.”  His nerve and disrespect were insulting.  That’s what really hurt.  She stood up, folded the newspaper and then saw her bag of cookies.  It had been hidden out of sight by the newspaper.  All this time, she had been helping herself to his small bag of cookies.  She had misjudged, robbed, and shown no respect for her table companion.     

In today’s parable of the vineyard the landowner thought, “They will respect my son.”  Instead, they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.  This parable is one of nine times that Jesus foretells parts of his passion and death.   Crucifixion is only prophesied twice, both times in the Gospel of Matthew. But the disrespect of sinners, the mockery and contempt are prophesied in nine times in different ways. That’s what most offended Jesus.  He foretold that the Son of Man would be rejected, treated with contempt, betrayed, mocked, spit upon, flogged, insulted, deserted by all and denied by Peter.  Crucifixion was the physical, outward sign of the far greater wounds inflicted on his Sacred Heart by our sins, by our lack of respect and love.     

But, in spite of all our offenses, Jesus did not ask His Father to destroy us like the landowner’s wicked tenants.  Instead, he asked his Father to forgive us. We are all tenants in God’s vineyard, table companions who have nothing of our own.  The goods we reach out to enjoy in this life are all his.  Yet they are but a small bag of cookies compared to the inheritance in heaven that Jesus wants to share with us.    

A millionaire once gave witness to his love and respect for Jesus Christ.  He said, “I attribute all my wealth to God’s blessings.  As a young boy the turning point in my relationship with God came when I had just earned my first dollar.  Next day in Church, a missionary described his work among the poorest of the poor and asked the congregation for donations to help them.  As the collection basket was passed around I realized I had to either give that dollar away or give nothing.  I decided to give it all out of love and respect for Jesus and the poor.  Looking back, I know that God blessed that decision with what I have today.” After the millionaire returned to his place and sat down to much applause an elderly lady in the pew behind him leaned forward and said, “I dare you to do it again.” 1  

How blessed we are to live a life in which we can love and respect Jesus by giving him our whole self every day.   

1. Story told by Brett Blair. 



Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings: Hb 1:2-3; 2:2-4;  2Tim 1:6-8, 13-14; Lk 17:5-10

Although dogs cannot be non-dogs and rocks cannot be non-rocks, humans can be inhuman. That is because we have the use (and mis-use) of reason. And because of that, we can have faith. And today, with the apostles, we ask the Lord to “increase our faith.” After all, we’re told, “the just one, because of his faith, will live.”

In response, Jesus tells them a story about a master who, to put it mildly, is insensitive to his servants. He is like a father who has his son crucified so the father can complete a personal project. Think about that… To receive this kind of treatment, the servant, like the son, needs another quality in addition to faith. He needs love.  

We all have a natural tendency toward self-preservation. That can include preservation of our world of relationships and meaning. As one author notes, our ## 1 desire is to be taken seriously. Although we know ourselves to be fallible we want to be taken seriously…anyway. At the same time we are submissive to something or someone greater than ourselves. This someone is the object of our faith and love. We choose it carefully. We are reminded today that we are to be faithful servants.

Faith is the experience of a connectedness with that someone greater than self. It motivates us to search for the ultimate meaning of existence and for truth.  And once these are found, faith is a total response of obedience to that meaning and truth, i.e., to God. St. Paul tells Timothy and us that such a response is a gift of a spirit that gives, “power, love, and sell-control.” A spirit is the power in us by which we know, love, and thus decide. It is the power by which we participate in Christ.

In participating in Christ we participate in returning the love with which the Father first loved us. Like the servant, we seek the good of the other for the others own sake. “For the other’s own sake” is an important element of love that Jesus stresses today. It tells us something important about His own interior life, about what makes Him tick.  The kind of master-servant relationship Jesus portrays is totally offensive to us today. Yet it characterizes His relationship to the Father, particularly in His passion & death. It is apparently the kind of thing you can do naturally if you’re born without Original Sin. But what about us?

If you weren’t born without Original Sin, then hang out with someone who was. If you do what they do, you’ll get what they got. The key to participating in Christ, then, is found 41 times in the gospel of John: “abide” or “remain” in Christ. (St. Benedict calls it “preferring nothing whatever to Christ.”) To take the stance of “worthless servants” we don’t need smarts; we need power. To remain in God under adverse or demanding circumstances we need the power of Christ’s Holy Spirit which He has given us. John’s gospel also often tells us how to be open to this power. It says to remember. Remember all the hard times in your life when it was given before.

We are accustomed to reciprocity. So being a faithful servant is a grace given by the one who calls us and by His spirit which empowers us. Apart from that grace we tend to keep accounts to be sure we are receiving in proportion to our giving and that our giving does not exceed its expected reward. The grace brings about a free response and enables us to endure to the end.

Thinking of ourselves as “worthless servants” sounds like a call to humility. It can only be that if it enables us to live in the truth. So each of us must reflect on her personal history of her relationship with God and remember that she is a creature dependent for her very existence (As St. Bernard said, “We were slime, and we were elevated.”) . Consequently, we have nothing to boast of before God. We can sincerely say, “We were only doing our duty,” through the grace of the Lord.


Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Gen 2:18-24; Heb 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16 ]

Fr. Stephen Fr. Pius, a monk of New Melleray for 67 years, was always intrigued by marriage as a Christian vocation. One day, he asked me, “Stephen, have you ever considered holy matrimony?” I thought about it for a moment and then replied: “You know, Fr. Pius, since I first came to the monastery I haven't thought of holy matrimony more than three or four times a day.” With a twinkle in his eye he asked, “Have you made up your mind yet?” “No,” I said, “I'm waiting to see what you will do.”

What can we learn from the vocation to marriage? First, marriage is a way of life that Jesus held in the highest esteem. He taught that from the beginning of creation we were created male and female, to become one flesh, sharing the whole of one's life. But self-centeredness can turn marriage into a painful relationship, and that can happen in religious communities, too.

Once there was a traveling salesman who was often away from home and family. When his wife went to the hospital to give birth to another lovely child he rushed back to be with her and collapsed into an easy chair by her bedside. A nurse came in and asked,A new baby “Are you feeling okay?” “Yes,” he replied, “I'm fine now.” She looked at him sprawled out in the chair and said, “I was talking to your wife, not you.” Some months later his wife complained that they never had time to do things together. He was becoming a stranger to the family. Struck to the heart he said, “Look, I'm really sorry. Let's take a week's vacation right now with our three kids. We can go anywhere you like.” At that, she burst out crying. Completely dismayed by her reaction he asked, “What did I say wrong now?” She replied, “We have four kids not three.”

The original happiness intended by God when a man and woman become one flesh as husband and wife will generate heartache if either one is centered on pleasing self, or wants to dominate, or is unfaithful. One day, an attorney taking a deposition asked, “What was the first thing your husband said to you when he woke up?” He said, “Judy, where am I?” The lawyer asked, “Why did that upset you so much?” She replied, “Because my name is Marilyn.”

One time, after twenty years in the monastery, I was at Genesee Abbey in New York, helping set up their library. Fr. Brendan and Fr. David sent me a tape recording to cheer me up in my long absence. While they were recording, old Br. Robert came by and they asked him to say hello to Stephen. He replied, “Who?” They said, “Stephen, the librarian. You would remember him if you saw him.” He said, “Maybe, but I don't think so.” Those kind of things happen, expect them.

Hillel and Shammai What else can we learn from the marriage vocation? In the time of Jesus there were two schools of thought about what constituted grounds for divorce. The stricter school of Rabbi Shammai allowed divorced only for adultery. The lenient school of Rabbi Hillel allowed divorce for the slightest reason, simply by writing a decree saying, “I release and divorce my wife this day” (Deut. 24:1-4). But Jesus said, “Whoever divorces and marries another commits adultery; what God has joined together no one must separate.” Christian marriage is not just a civil union between two persons, it is a sacramental union between a man and woman, a visible sign of the beautiful, intimate relationship we have with Christ and each other for all eternity. The love that Christian marriage manifests by physical union we as religious also manifest by consecrated virginity. Because the Church is the spouse of Christ.

Advertising There is something else we can learn from the marriage vocation. Jesus was on his last journey to Jerusalem to be crucified when he taught that the marriage covenant is an exclusive, permanent, life-long commitment. The indissolubility of marriage will be hard if the relationship turns painful, but that pain can't compare to the suffering Jesus endured for our sakes. Christian discipleship is often costly, walking under the weight of the cross. It would be wonderful if all couples could be like those in automobile advertisements: physically attractive, best friends, awesome lovers, blissful parents of two obedient children, owners of the newest car on the market. But couples whose marriages suffer from self-centeredness and other failures live in a fallen world where Christ has made sufferings redemptive. In both marriage and religious life we can make our sufferings valuable by offering them as intercessory prayers for ourselves and others. St. Vincent de Paul once said, “Strive to live content in the midst of things that cause your discontent. God will take care of you.” Sufferings are easier to bear when we make them valuable as intercessory prayers. That's how Jesus bore his sufferings on the cross.

Fr. Pius Some marriages, however, are actually invalid from the beginning. The consent needed for a Christian, sacramental marriage goes beyond what is needed for a civil union. A Christian marriage will be invalid if the intention to make a lifelong commitment is lacking, or if there is no willingness to have children. An annulment will confirm the invalidity. But what happens when a valid marriage falls apart or a religious vocation goes sour? What then?

Christ never rejects us when we turn to him for compassion and forgiveness. In his eyes we are all children whom he loves, like the woman caught in adultery, or the Samaritan who had five husbands, or Peter who denied him three times, or the apostles who deserted him. Christ wants to embrace us and save us when we fall. Sometimes it is hard to be married, but let those who are married learn from us religious that it is also hard not to be married. As Fr. Pius said to me one day, “I'm very happy to have persevered, but I wouldn't want to do it all over again.”

Let us all be of good courage as we walk along the way of the cross because in the end we will share Christ's resurrection and discover what it means to be a spouse of Christ in eternal happiness.