Friday, September 22, 2017

SEEDS AND SOILS


Homily for September 23rd, 2017: Luke 8:4-15.

          Jesus’ favorite form of teaching was through stories. We call them parables. Most of them are so simple that they can be understood even by children; yet so profound that scholars are still writing books about them. The parable of the sower and his seed occurs in three of the four gospels. At the most basic level, the story is encouragement in the face of failure. It is Jesus’ answer to the rising tide of opposition which his teaching and ministry provoked. Most of the seed which the farmer sows is wasted. Despite this waste, the story promises a “hundredfold” harvest. A modern commentator writes: “A 20-to-1 ratio would have been considered an extraordinary harvest. Jesus’ strikingly large figures are intended to underscore the prodigious quality of God’s glorious kingdom still to come.”

          Today’s gospel reading gives the story another interpretation. By speaking about the different kinds of soil on which the farmer’s seed falls, Jesus directs our attention to our role in the harvest. It comes from God, yes. But it requires our cooperation.

          The different kinds of soil symbolize the many kinds of people who heard Jesus’ message: in his lifetime, and still today. “Those on the path are the ones who have heard,” Jesus says, “but the Devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts that they may not believe and be saved.” There are people like that in every parish, the world over.  

So also for those on rocky ground. They receive Jesus’ words with joy. But they have no root, so in times of temptation, they fall away. The seed falling among thorns represent people unable to bring any fruit to fruition, because they are so busy with other things: anxiety, and the pursuit of the false gods of pleasure, possessions, power, and honor.  

The super-abundant harvest of which the story speaks comes only for those who internalize Jesus’ words, praying over them, and making them the foundation of their lives. In response, then, we pray: “Take hold of me, Lord. Help me to know that you are always with me; that I can find happiness only by fulfilling the purpose for which you fashioned me in my mother’s womb: to praise, serve, and glorify you here on earth; and so to be happy with you forever in heaven. Amen.”

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"ACCOMPANYING HIM WERE SOME WOMEN."


Homily for Sept. 22nd, 2017: Luke 8:1-3

          Who were Jesus’ disciples? The Twelve, first of all, chosen by Jesus to represent Jesus’ desire to reconstitute the twelve tribes of Israel. They were all men. Traveling along with them, Luke tells us in today’s gospel, were women as well. A modern Bible commentator writes: “It was not uncommon for women to support rabbis and their disciples out of their own money, property, or foodstuffs. But for [a woman] to leave home and travel with a rabbi was not only unheard of, it was scandalous. Even more scandalous was the fact that women, both respectable and not, were among Jesus’ travelling companions.” Today’s gospel is one of the many pieces of evidence we have that Jesus rejected the second-class status of women in his society.

          The first woman mentioned, Mary of Magdala, a small town in Galilee, is clearly not the woman “known in the town to be a sinner,” whom we heard about in yesterday’s gospel. Luke is clearly telling us about a woman he has not previously mentioned. The information that “seven demons had gone out of her” refers to healing from sickness. The number seven in biblical thought represents fullness. Her healing is now complete.

            The next woman mentioned, Joanna, is married to a high government official: Chuza, the manager of the estates of Palestine’s ruler, Herod Antipas. This Herod was hostile to Jesus. If his steward Chuza was the royal official mentioned in the 4th chapter of John’s gospel who asked Jesus to heal his son, as some commentators believe, and who “became a believer” when the boy was cured, this would explain why he allowed his wife to minister to Jesus.

          Later it would be women, not men, who were the first witnesses and messengers of the resurrection. Despite all this evidence of the importance of women for Jesus, it was to men alone that he gave the command at the Last Supper, to “do this in my memory.” This helps explain why still today only men are ordained to the priesthood. St. John Paul II told us that the Church has no power to alter Jesus’ clear intention and command.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

BARGAINERS AND BEGGARS


Homily for Sept. 24th, 2017: 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. 
          Matthew 20:1-16a
AIM:  To help the hearers trust not in their merits, but in God’s mercy.
 
          It seems terribly unfair, doesn’t it? Even a child can see that is isn’t right to pay people who have worked all day in the blazing sun no more than those who have worked only an hour. Many years ago I spoke about this parable to some wonderful Sisters in St. Louis with whom I lived for seventeen years. When I had finished reading the story, I could see an elderly German Sister in the front row frowning.
          “They all get the same,” she said. She was pretty burned up about it.
          We should be burned up about it. If we’re not, we haven’t been listening: or the story is so familiar that it no longer disturbs us. To understand the story we have to realize that it is not about social justice. It is about God’s generosity. If Jesus were telling the story today, it might go something like this.
          A rancher in one of the “salad factories” of California’s San Fernando valley is eager to harvest his crop before a threatened change in the weather. So at dawn he’s off to the hiring hall at the edge of town. The men he finds there are able-bodied and eager to work. But they also know their rights. They bargain with the rancher about the conditions of work, and about their wages. When they strike a deal, they feel good about it. The work will be hard, but they know they will be well paid.
          At intervals during the day, the foreman tells the rancher that more workers will be needed if they want to get in the whole harvest in time. So the rancher makes repeated trips to town to hire additional help. Each time the workers he encounters are less promising. The men he finds lounging around in mid-afternoon are the dregs of the local labor market: drifters, panhandlers, winos. While those hired at dawn have been working in the hot sun, these men have spent another day idle, reflecting glumly on the hopelessness of their lot. There is no bargaining with men like that. As much out of pity as for any real help this sorry lot can offer, the rancher tells them: 
          “Get into the truck, fellows. There’s work for you out at my place.”
          At quitting time, those hired last are first in the pay line. These are the men whom life has passed over. They have learned through bitter experience that every man’s hand is against them. They wish now that something had been said about wages before they got into the rancher’s truck a couple of hours earlier. 
          The first man in line receives his pay envelope. He rips it open — and can’t believe his eyes. It contains a whole day’s pay! He stands there dazed, tears of joy welling up in his eyes. He expected to be swindled. Instead, he has been treated generously — far more generously, he knows, than he deserves.
          Meanwhile, news of what the first men in line are receiving is being passed back to those in the rear. These are the men who have worked hard all day. They calculate how much they will receive at the same hourly rate. Imagine their indignation when they receive exactly what they had bargained for in the early morning. They protest angrily to the rancher.
          “It’s my money, isn’t it?” he answers them. “If I want to be generous to someone else, what’s that to you?”
          We are left with the injustice. The story begins to make sense only when we ask: who was happy? who was disappointed? and why? Those who were happy were the men hired last and paid first. They had not bargained. They had nothing to bargain with. They were little better than beggars. It was these beggars, however, who went away happy, while the bargainers were unhappy.
          Why? Not because they had struck a bad bargain. No, at the beginning of the day they knew it was a good bargain. Nor were they unhappy because the bargain was not kept. On the contrary, it was kept to the letter. At the end of the day, however, they thought of something that had never occurred to them when they were hired. They thought they deserved more.
          The men who went away happy did not appeal to what they deserved. They knew they deserved very little. The only thing they could appeal to was the rancher’s generosity. That is the key to a right relationship with God, Jesus says.  Appeal to God’s generosity and you will be flooded with joy. Appeal to what you deserve, and God will give it to you. God is always just. He never short-changes us. When we discover, however, how little we actually deserve, we’ll probably be disappointed. 
          We know the story as the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. A better title would be the parable of the Bargainers and the Beggars. The story is important for us. It flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught. Society says we should not be beggars. We should work for what we get, not depend on handouts. In everyday life that is fine. With God, however, different standards apply. He loves to give handouts! To receive them, however, we need to stand before him empty-handed, appealing (if we must appeal at all) not to God’s justice but to his mercy. More, we must forget about keeping track of what we think we “deserve” and stop worrying that others whom we consider “less deserving” (or not deserving at all!) share the Lord’s overflowing bounty with us. 
          The full-time workers in this story resemble the elder son in the story of the Prodigal Son, angry at the undeserved welcome extended to his shiftless younger brother. Like those who had worked all day in the vineyard, the elder brother thought he had been short-changed. He was mistaken. “Everything I have is yours,” his father told him (Luke 15:31). What more could he have received than that? The elder brother in that story needed to stop keeping score and join in welcoming the family member who, despite his folly and sin, was still his brother.
          Are you a score-keeper, always reckoning what’s coming to you? Are you, with God, a bargainer — or are you a beggar? If you want to experience God’s justice, be a bargainer. He is a God of justice. He’ll never short-change you. When you discover, however, how little you deserve on any strict accounting, you’ll probably be disappointed, perhaps even shocked.
          So perhaps you’d rather experience God’s generosity. If so, then you must learn to be, before God, a beggar. Then you will be bowled over with the Lord’s generosity. You will know Mary’s joy at the news that she was to be the mother of God’s Son: “The hungry he has given every good thing, while the rich he has sent empty away” (Luke 1:53).
          Ask the Lord who bestows his gifts not according to our deserving but according to his boundless generosity to give you that hunger which longs to be fed; that emptiness which yearns to be filled. Stand beneath his cross and say, in the words of the old evangelical hymn:
          Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to your cross I cling.

THE CALL OF MATTHEW


Homily for Sept. 21st, 2017: Matthew 9:9-13.

          “As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.” Matthew was a tax collector. He was not the kind of tax collector we know today, a civil servant. In the Palestine of Jesus’ day the Roman government of occupation entrusted the collection of taxes to tax farmers, as they are sometimes called, who bid for the right to collect taxes. In doing so, they enriched themselves by extorting more than the government required. They were hated, therefore, for two reasons: for preying on people financially; and for serving the despised Roman rulers of the land. 

          Jesus speaks just two words to Matthew: “Follow me.” Without hesitation, Matthew gets up and follows Jesus. Other disciples of Jesus have already done the same, when, at Jesus’ command, they abandoned the tools of their trade as fishermen, their boats and nets, to follow Jesus. What motivated this immediate obedience? I think that if we could have questioned any of them, Matthew included, they would have replied: “There was something about this man, Jesus, which made it impossible to say no.” 

          As a parting gesture Matthew invites his friends to dinner at his house, with Jesus as the honored guest. As we would expect, many of those friends were Matthew’s fellow tax collectors. Others were simply “sinners,” as the gospel reading calls them: Jews, like Matthew, who did not bother to keep all of God’s law.

Observing these disreputable guests, the Pharisees, proud of their exact observance of God’s law, ask Jesus’ other disciples how their Master can associate with such ruffians. Jesus supplies the answer himself: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. … I did not come to call the righteous [by which Jesus means ‘people like you Pharisees’]. ‘I came to call sinners.’

What is the message for us? If we want Jesus’ loving care, we need first to recognize and confess our need. And the first thing we need from Jesus is forgiveness.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"THEY ARE LIKE CHILDREN."


Homily for Sept. 20th, 2017: Luke 7:31-35.

          Jesus speaks often of children in the gospels, usually in a positive sense. He tells us, for instance, that we cannot enter the kingdom of God unless we “become like little children” (Mt. 18:3; cf. Mk. 9:36, Lk 9:47). When his disciples try to keep children away from Jesus, he rebukes them, saying that anyone who welcomes a little child “welcomes me” (Lk 9:48). In these and similar passages Jesus is recommending the sense of dependence that children have. It never occurs to small children that they can make it on their own. He is also recommending children’s ability to wonder – something that most of us lose, as we grow up, though artists and great saints retain the sense of wonder at God’s creation into old age.

          In today’s gospel Jesus speaks about a negative aspect of childhood. Grieved that too few of his own people have responded either to his cousin, John the Baptist, or to himself, Jesus compares them to children who reject every approach of those who reach out to them in loving concern. ‘You complained that John was too strict and ascetic,’ Jesus says in effect. ‘Me you find too laid back and merciful. What do you want?’ Jesus asks them.

          Children can be like that. I experienced it myself, in my own childhood. I might have been ten years old, or even younger, with a sister eight, and a brother six. I remember my father saying to another grownup, in a tone of resigned frustration: “My children are contra-suggestive.” I no longer know what occasioned this remark, but I can easily imagine it. Whatever my father suggested, by way of a leisure activity – whether it was a walk, a drive in the country, or a visit to a museum – we said: “Oh, no -- we don’t want to do that.”

          Most of us carry over this childhood stubbornness into adult life. We’d like to determine our own agenda, thank you. But of course we can’t. God set the agenda for us before we were even born. “My yoke is easy”, Jesus says, “and my burden light” (Mt. 11:30). Jesus’ yoke is easy, however, only if we accept it. Otherwise it chafes. How better could we respond to Jesus’ words in today’s gospel than to pray: “Not what I want, Lord, but what you want.”

Monday, September 18, 2017

"YOUNG MAN, ARISE."


Homily for Sept. 19th, 2017: Luke 7:11-17.

          Can there be anything more tragic than parents having to bury a son or daughter? The tragedy is deepened in the story we have just heard by the fact that the mother who must bury her son is a widow, who has no other children. It was a man’s world. Women were the property of men in Jesus’ day: the property of their fathers until they married, then the property of their husbands. The Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” lists a man’s wife among the things one must not covet. With her husband already dead, and now her son as well, this widow of Nain has no man to speak for her or protect her.

          This tragedy has parallels even in an age of women’s liberation. I remember as if it were yesterday standing as a young priest in a bleak and rocky cemetery in Arizona, where I had just laid to rest beside his long deceased father the only son of a widow named Nellie. Her deep Christian faith strengthened my faith then, and I continue to pray for her today. “There are my two men-folk,” Nellie told me when the prayers of committal were over.

          How could Jesus be indifferent to such grief? We heard in yesterday’s gospel about Jesus healing the gravely ill slave of a Roman military officer, to whom the sick slave was “very dear.” The young man being carried to burial at Nain is no less dear to his mother. Disregarding the Jewish law of ritual purity which said that one must not touch a corpse, Jesus unhesitatingly reaches out to touch the coffin saying: “Young man, I tell you, arise!” Whereupon, Luke tells us, the young man “sat up.” The Scripture commentators tell us that the Greek word which Luke uses for “sit up” is a medical term – hardly surprising when we know that Luke was what passed in those days for a medical doctor. The people who witnessed this miracle respond with the simple but powerful words: “God has visited his people.”

          What better response could we make to this moving story than to pray the words of an old evangelical hymn: “What a friend we have in Jesus / All our sins and griefs to bear! / What a privilege to carry / Everything to God in prayer. / Are we weak and heavy laden, / Burdened with a load of care? / Precious Savior, still our refuge / Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"LORD, I AM NOT WORTHY."


Homily for Sept. 18th, 2017: Luke 7:1-10.

          The centurion who asks Jesus to heal his serving boy is a Roman military officer, something like a colonel today. This is clear from his response when Jesus sets off at once to heal the boy. The officer shows both courtesy to Jesus and respect for the Jewish law by saying: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you under my roof.” The officer’s Jewish friends have already told Jesus this Roman officer has taken a genuine interest in their religion, and has even built a synagogue. The officer knows, therefore, that in entering a Gentile house Jesus could become ritually unclean. Hence, Luke tells us, the officer suggests an alternative: “Just give an order and my boy will be healed.” I do that all the time, he says. I give orders to those under my authority, and they do what I command.

          Upon hearing these words, Luke tells us, Jesus “showed amazement.” Normally it is the witnesses of Jesus’ healings who are amazed. Here it is the Lord himself who shows amazement. I have not found faith like this from my own people, Jesus says. This outsider, who has neither our divine law, nor our prophets, he tells the people, shows greater faith than you do.

          The centurion’s words continue to resound two millennia later. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” we say before we approach the Lord’s table to receive his Body and Blood, “but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” Even after a good confession, we are still unworthy of the Lord’s gift. He gives himself to us for one reason: not because we are good enough; but because he is so good that he longs to share his love with us.  

          How do we respond? By gratitude! By walking before the Lord in holiness and righteousness all our days, trusting that when the Lord calls us home to himself, we shall hear him saying to us, very personally and with tender love: “Well done. … Come and share your master’s joy.” (Matt. 25:21).

 

Friday, September 15, 2017

BUILDING ON ROCK

Homily for September 16th, 2017: Luke 6:43-49.
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do what I command?" Jesus asks in today’s gospel. He is addressing people whose religious practice has no real foundations. He contrasts such people with those who, after hearing the Lord’s words, put them into practice in daily life. They are “like the man building a house” Jesus says, “who dug deep and laid the foundation on rock; when the flood came, the river burst against that house but could not shake it because it had been well built.” He goes on to contrast such a person with the superficially religious person “who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, it collapsed a once and was completely destroyed.”
To build one's house without foundations means building our lives on things that are unstable and fleeting, things that cannot withstand the tests of time and the hazards of chance. What are such things? Money, success, fame, and even health and prosperity. None of those things are reliable or solid.
To build one's house on rock means to base our lives on things that are solid, enduring, things that cannot be carried away with Life’s storms. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus says later in Matthew’s gospel, “but my words will not pass away.” (24:35) To build our house on rock means building our life on God. Rock is one of the preferred biblical symbols for the God. “Trust in the Lord forever,” we read in the prophet Isaiah, “for the Lord is an eternal rock.” (26:4). The book Deuteronomy says the same: "He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is." (32:4)
To build one's house on the rock means, therefore, living in the Church and not remaining on the fringe, at a distance, using the excuse that the Church is filled with hypocrisy, dishonesty. and sin. Of course it is! The Church is made up of sinners like ourselves.
Today's gospel starts with what seems a harsh message. For the first time Luke speaks about people who refer to Jesus as their Lord. But what good is it to cry out, "Lord, Lord," Jesus asks, when your works are not done for him but for your own glory? When we cry out "Lord," it should mean that we belong to him at all times, and not just as temporary acquaintances. When the Lord responds, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers,” (a harsh message indeed) Jesus is really expressing his longing for people who are truly close to him in daily life. Those who do things in his name to be seen and honored, yet refuse to be in daily fellowship with him are fraudulent. Those who are deaf to the Word of God, who do not act upon it, and whose lives are not built upon God will be swept away when the storms of life descend.