Friday, March 22, 2019

WAS THE ELDER BROTHER SHORT-CHANGED?


Homily for March 23rd, 2019: Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32.

Was the older brother short-changed? Don’t we have a sneaky feeling that his complaint was justified? Unlike his shiftless younger brother, he’d never left home. He’d never asked for his father’s money. Nor had he wasted what his father had been good enough to give him.   

All that is true. But the older brother=s reaction to his younger brother’s shame-faced return shows that the elder brother too was in a distant country: physically at home, but far removed from his father=s attitude of love. He never noticed his father=s grief all the time his brother was away. Now that he is home again, the elder brother refuses to acknowledge him. AYour son,@ the older brother calls him, as if to say: AYour son, perhaps, but no brother of mine.@ He is filled with resentment, envy, and hate. Yet the father does not condemn this son any more than he had condemned his younger son: AEverything I have is yours,@ he reminds the elder brother. Farther than that love cannot go. 

AWho in the story suffered the most?@ a Sunday school teacher asked the class after reading them this story. One of the brightest children answered at once: AThe fattened calf.@ Next to the fattened calf, however, comes the older brother who remains outside while the party goes on inside. He does not even taste the fattened calf which he himself probably helped to raise. 

Or did he? Did he change his mind and go in after all? Jesus doesn=t tell us.  Jesus leaves the story open-ended. He does so because us wants us to supply the ending. This Mass C every Mass C is a celebration of our heavenly Father=s freely given love and forgiveness. The price of that forgiveness was the poured out blood of his Son, who, as St Paul tells us, “did not know sin, but whom God made to be sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). We supply the ending to the story by confronting honestly the questions Jesus is putting to each of us right now:

Is the Mass for you a celebration of joy at your heavenly Father’s love, given not just to good faithful people like yourself, but to all, without limit? In other words C Have you heard the good news? Are you joining in its celebration?

Thursday, March 21, 2019

"THE KINGDOM OF GOD WILL BE TAKEN FROM YOU."


March 21st, 2019: Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46.

          Opposition to Jesus has risen to a point where the religious leaders of his people are about to reject him. Jesus gives them a final, solemn warning: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” The parable’s warning continues today: for our country, for us American Catholics, for each of us personally.

          First, the warning for our country. Few nations have been so blessed by God as ours. From small beginnings we have become the world’s only superpower. Jesus’ parable warns us that all our wealth and power will be taken from us, and given to others, if we are not willing to share with those less fortunate than ourselves the abundance God has given us. 

          The parable is also a warning to us American Catholics. The position of influence we enjoy in the Church, because of our numbers and financial resources, will be taken away from us and given to Catholics in Third World countries, if our Catholicism is complacent, conventional, and lukewarm — while theirs is dynamic, daring, enthusiastic. 

          For each of us personally Jesus’ parable is a warning that merely conventional, formal religion is not enough. And our religion is conventional if all it means, at bottom, is fulfilling a list of “minimum obligations”: dropping in at Sunday Mass to get our card punched, avoidance of serious sin, but not much beyond that: little generosity, little love or consideration for others, because we’re too busy looking after Number One. How much would a marriage be worth in which the spouses were merely concerned to fulfill their “minimum obligations” to one another? Think about it!

          In the great family of God which we call the Catholic Church God lavishes on us treasures beyond counting: all his truth, all his goodness, power, and love (which the theologians call “grace”). He looks for our answering love in return. The treasures God bestows on us are meant to be used, not put away for safe-keeping. They are to be shared, not hoarded. If we fail to pass on to others what God so generously gives to us, we shall lose God’s gifts. We can’t keep them, unless we give them away! That is what Jesus’ warning words mean: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

          Someone has said: It doesn’t take much of a person to be a Catholic Christian. But it does take all of him — or her — that there is!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

THE BEGGAR LAZARUS


Homily for March 21st, 2019: Luke 16:19-31.
Why was the rich man punished?  Not for anything he did, but for what he failed to do. He seems not even to have seen poor Lazarus as he went in or out of his house. Another question: Why did Lazarus go to heaven? We are not told that he did a single good deed. All we know about him, apart from his poverty, is his name: Lazarus. It means AGod is my help.@ So this Lazarus is not just a poor man, but one who believes in God, and trusts him. That is why he is carried by angels to Abraham=s bosom in heaven: not because he was poor, but because of his trusting faith in God. 
The parable doesn’t say that at death the rich will become poor and the poor rich. Wealthy people who use their wealth to do good for God and others, experience happiness in this life and blessing in the next. Poor people who spend their lives in bitterness, envy, self-pity, and hate experience misery in this life, which may continue after death.
If the parable is a story of judgment, it also contains good news. The judgment meted out to Lazarus B silent and passive throughout B tells us that the inarticulate, the weak, the poor, the marginalized and neglected, are especially dear to God. Lazarus, the man whom God helped, tells us that in the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and run without growing weary; those who hope in the Lord renew their strength and soar as on eagles= wings; the tone deaf sing like he Metropolitan Opera stars, René Fleming and Placido Domingo; the poor are made rich; the hungry feast at the banquet of eternal life; the sorrowful are filled with laughter and joy; and those who are persecuted because of the Son of Man receive their unbelievably great reward.
        Somewhere in this church right now there may be a Lazarus: someone weighed down by illness, misunderstanding, injustice, loneliness, or poverty. The Lord is telling you: >Trust me always. I am with you. You are in my hands, now and always. And my hands are good hands.=   

Also in this church there may be someone who is rich. You have worked hard for what you have. You are grateful for what God has given you. But there is still an emptiness inside. To you the Lord is saying:  >Open your hands and your heart. There is a Lazarus at your door, maybe in your own family. Try to help that person. Sometimes all that is necessary is an affirming word, a kind gesture or a loving look. Remember, ‘whatever you do to one of these least sisters or brothers of mine, you do to me.’  Then one day I shall be able to say to you very personally the words I long to say to all my friends: AWell done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.@=  

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

PREPARING FOR JUDGEMENT


 
March 24th, 2019: Third Sunday in Lent, Year C.  Luke 13: 1-9.
AIM:  To bring home to the hearers the seriousness of judgment, without discouraging them.
How many people here can remember an old-style parish mission? There was always a sermon on hell. With all the eloquence at his command the preacher painted a grisly picture of everlasting punishment, designed to terrify people into repenting of their sins. We don=t hear sermons like that today. Have we given up hell? Or have we just decided to de-emphasize it? Today=s gospel, with its solemn warning about unexpected death and judgment, is a good opportunity to reconsider Jesus= teaching on this important matter.
Jesus= hearers tell him about two recent disasters: an atrocity perpetrated by the hated Roman governor, Pontius Pilate; and a construction accident which killed eighteen unsuspecting people. In Jesus= day people assumed that the victims of such tragedies were being punished for their sins. Twice over Jesus contradicts this view. The victims were no worse sinners than anyone else, Jesus says. But their deaths were a warning nonetheless, Jesus says: AI tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!@ The story which follows, about a farmer and his barren fig tree, drives home this warning. It also does more, as we shall see.
Fig trees grew wild in Palestine in Jesus= day. They are mentioned more than sixty times in the Bible. A newly planted fig tree takes three years to bear fruit. So when the owner of this fig tree tells his gardener that he has been looking for fruit from it for three years, this means it had been there for six years in all. The order to cut it down was entirely reasonable. The gardener is an example of the incurable optimist. He wants to dig round it, to allow the rain to reach the roots, and to fertilize the tree. Nowhere in Scripture do we find any reference to fig trees being cultivated or fertilized. The gardener is suggesting extraordinary, heroic measures. He agrees with his employer, however, that if the tree is still without fruit after another year, it will have to come down.
The story contains a warning, but also encouragement. God is like the owner of the fig tree, Jesus is saying. God looks for results. There will be a day of reckoning. That is the warning. But God is also patient. He is willing to wait. He will even wait longer than necessary. Behind the figure of the gardener in the story C pleading for one more growing season, for extraordinary, heroic measures C we glimpse Jesus himself. Jesus, our elder brother and our best friend, knows our weakness. If we haven=t done too well up to now, Jesus pleads on our behalf for more time. That is the story=s message of encouragement.
In the gardener=s suggestion to wait one more year, to use extraordinary measures, we see God=s patience and generosity. In the agreement of owner and gardener alike, that if the tree remains without fruit another year, it must be cut down, Jesus warns us of the certainty judgment.
The story challenges us, as Jesus challenged those who first heard it, by reminding them of the victims mentioned before the story. Those people were not expecting to die. They thought they had time C perhaps many years. Death overtook them when they were least expecting it. How many of them were ready?
Are you ready? Are you living as if this life, and this world, are all there is? Or are you conscious in daily life of another world? That your lasting citizenship is not here but in heaven, as last Sunday=s second reading reminded us (Phil. 3:20)? That means that we belong to a higher, spiritual world, with standards that cut across the standards of this world, with its continual emphasis on getting more, and more, and more, as the price of a happiness which, nevertheless, still eludes us?
Each day of our lives is a gift from our loving heavenly Father. He wants us to use his precious gift of time to become the beautiful, loving, open-hearted people he created us to be. God is patient. He gives us chance after chance. One day, however, there will no more chances. One day we shall be called to give an account of how we have used the time God has given us. Few of us have a century. 
This brings us back to the question of punishment, with which we started. The name for eternal punishment is hell. Does hell exist? Yes, it does. Does God send people to hell? The answer to that question may surprise you. God never sends anyone to hell. Hell is something we choose for ourselves. The Catechism says that hell is Aself-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed. ... God predestines no one to hell; for this a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end@ (Nos. 1033 & 1037; emphasis supplied). The judgment which awaits us at life=s end is not the adding up of the pluses and minuses in some heavenly account book. In judgment God ratifies the judgment we have pronounced by the choices we make during our time on earth. 
AWe believe in hell,@ the English Church historian Eamon Duffy writes, Abecause we can imagine ourselves choosing it. We cannot know the secrets of other people=s souls, but we know enough of our own to recognize something within us which shies away from God, something which wants to close our hearts to others. There is no inevitability about our response to God or to other people: hate and fear, as well as love and trust, are close to hand. Hell, in that sense, is a perpetual calling within us, from which only the loving mercy of God holds us back. We can trust in that mercy, but to trust in God=s mercy is not the same as taking it for granted. We may hope for salvation for all humankind, even for ourselves: but hell remains a terrible possibility, the dark side of our freedom. But the last word in all this belongs not with our freedom, but with God=s grace.@
Grace is the theologian=s word for God=s love. God=s love will never let us go. He offers us chance after chance to turn to him, to produce the fruit for which he sowed the seed when, through our parents, he gave us the precious gift of life. Nourished by God=s love we can still produce rich and abundant fruit. Our lives can be filled with his goodness, his light, his generosity, his love. One thing, and one thing alone, can prevent this rich and abundant harvest: our own deliberate and final choice, that it shall not be. 

SEEKING HONOR, NOT SERVICE


Homily March 20th, 2019: Matthew 20:17-28.

          “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,” Jesus says in today’s gospel. It is his response to the request made by the mother of the brothers James and John that he give them places of special honor in his kingdom. The petition may have come from the mother. It is clear, however, that she had the full backing of her two sons. For when Jesus asks if they can share the chalice of pain and suffering from which he will drink, the two brothers respond eagerly, “We can.” Clearly they have no idea what lies ahead for the Master they love and revere.

It quickly becomes clear that the other disciples are equally clueless. They become indignant at James and John for staking out a claim before the other disciples can assert theirs. Patiently Jesus explains that this whole contest for honor is totally unacceptable among his followers. “Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” And immediately Jesus ratifies this teaching with his own example: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

          We all need a measure of recognition and affirmation. But if finding that is central in your life, I’ll promise you one thing. You’ll never get enough -- and you'll always be frustrated. Look, rather, for opportunities to serve others and you will find happiness: here and now in this world -- and in the next the joy of eternal life with the Lord who tells us, later in this gospel according to Matthew: “Whatever you do for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you do for me.”  

 

Monday, March 18, 2019

"JOSEPH DECIDED TO DIVORCE HER QUIETLY."


Homily for March 19th, 2019: Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24A.

Luke’s gospel tells us that when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her that God wanted her to be the mother of God’s son, Gabriel also told her that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, though far beyond child-bearing age, was also, as they say in England, “in a family way” – six months pregnant, in fact. With typical generosity, Mary decides to go and visit Elizabeth. She couldn’t start right away. It was a man’s world. A woman, especially a young teenager like Mary, could not travel alone. She must have at least one chaperone.

Organizing that took time. Since the whole purpose of the visit was to help with the birth of Elizabeth’s son, Mary was away from home for some months. By the time she got back to Nazareth, she was visibly pregnant. A film I saw a few years ago – I think it was called The Birth of the Messiah – shows Mary’s encounter with Joseph after her months’ long absence. The look on his face is unforgettable.

          According to the law of that day, an unmarried woman who got pregnant could be stoned for bringing shame on her family. Though Mary had been unfaithful to him (as Joseph assumed), Joseph still loved her and did not want to be responsible for her death. Rather than bringing public charges, Joseph decided simply to break off the engagement quietly.

Then something unexpected happens. An angel visits Joseph in a dream and tells him: the baby growing in Mary’s womb has no human father. He is God’s Son, the anointed Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, whose coming Israel’s prophets have predicted for centuries. Then Joseph wakes up and realizes it was only a dream.

Or was it only a dream, Joseph wonders? Suppose it’s true? With great courage, and almost super-human faith, Joseph decides to go ahead with his longed planned marriage. For the rest of his life, whenever Joseph had doubts or second thoughts about the life he had chosen, all he had to go on was the memory of a dream when he was only a teenager.

            Friends, we too have staked our lives on a dream: that God exists; that he is a God of love and of justice; that he has called us, as he called Joseph, to be friends and  servants of Mary and her Son Jesus.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

GIVERS AND TAKERS


Homily for March 18th, 2019: Luke 6:36-38.

          At the end of the day there are, basically, two kinds of people. There are the Takers, and there are the Givers. Which are you? If you’re a Taker, I can promise you one thing. You will always be frustrated; because you’ll never get enough. The only truly happy people are Givers. They are the ones who receive from God, the giver of every good gift, the joy and peace which only the Lord God can give.

          At bottom this is what Jesus is talking about in the short gospel reading we have just heard. “Give and gifts will be given to you,” he tells us. And what we receive will be measured out to us in accordance with the generosity of our own giving. “For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

          If we want God to be merciful to us, Jesus says, we must be merciful to others. If we want God to be generous in judging us – and is there anyone who does not? – then we must be generous in judging others.

          Lent is a time in which we try to grow spiritually. One way to do so is to examine ourselves, our attitudes, and our behavior. Am I quick to find fault with others? Do I try to avoid contact with people who rub me the wrong way? Do I easily look down on others who don’t have the gifts God has given me? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, or sometimes, then we need to ask the Lord to help us change.

          Nor should we wait to see if others show any sign of being willing to change. Start to make the necessary changes today. And you will discover what all generous Givers know already: God can never be outdone in generosity!

Friday, March 15, 2019

"BE PERFECTED."


March 16th, 2017: Matthew 5:43-48.

In his book Mere Christianity, the British Anglican writer, C.S. Lewis, includes a reflection on the gospel reading we have just heard which can hardly be bettered. Here it is:

         “On the one hand, God’s demand for perfection need not discourage you in the least in your present attempts to be good, or even in your failures. Each time you fall He will pick you up again. And he knows perfectly well that your own efforts are never going to bring you anywhere near perfection.  

“On the other hand you must realize from the outset that the goal towards which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal. That is what you are in for. And it is very important to realize that. If we do not, then we are very likely to start pulling back and resisting Him after a certain point . . .  

          “But this is a fatal mistake. Of course we never wanted, and never asked, to be made into the sort of creatures God is going to make us into. But the question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when he made us.”