Monday, September 26, 2016

"SONS OF THUNDER"


Homily or September 27th, 2016: Luke 9:51-56.            

          In Jesus’ day the enmity between Jews and Samaritans was proverbial. We might compare it to the enmity between Sunni and Shia Moslems today. Samaritans were especially resentful of Jews passing through their territory on pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. This explains why the Samaritan villagers mentioned in today’s gospel reading “would not welcome” Jesus and his friends. Because there were twelve of them, thirteen with Jesus, Jesus had sent messengers ahead to let the villagers know he was coming, and wanted accommodation for the night.

          Mark’s gospel tells us that the brothers, James and John, sons of the fisherman Zebedee, were given the name “Boanerges,” or Sons of Thunder (Mk. 3:17). Their hot-tempered anger at the refusal of hospitality by these Samaritan villagers helps explain the reason for their nickname. The two brothers’ desire to “call down fire from heaven,” reminds us of what the Old Testament prophet Elijah had twice done to destroy his enemies (2 Kings 1:10 & 12). It was the biblical equivalent of the modern slogan: “Don’t get mad, get even.”

          Luke has already reported Jesus’ rejection of such revenge. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says in the sixth chapter of Luke’s gospel. “Do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you” (6:27f.) Acting in that way is never easy. But those who, with the Lord’s help, overcome the longing for revenge which comes naturally not only to us adults, but even to young children, call down a different fire upon those who maltreat them. It is the fire of love, which alone can overcome and burn out hatred. And so we pray in this Mass: “Lord, pour out into my heart the all-consuming fire of your love, that I may share that love with others.”

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"WHO IS THE GREATEST?"


Homily for Sept. 26th, 2016: Luke 9:46-50.

          “An argument arose among them about which of them was the greatest.” So what else is new? we ask. The argument continued at the Last Supper (cf. Lk. 22:24). It continues today: we clergy are especially susceptible. Even canonized saints have engaged in the contest for position and honor. We would have celebrated one of them yesterday, had it not been a Sunday: St. Vincent de Paul. He decided to be a priest, even managing to get himself ordained several years before the minimum age, because he thought priesthood was a career, rather than a service. Only years later did he come to realize his error, acknowledging it with the words: “If I had known what priesthood was all about, as I have come to know since, I would rather have tilled the soil than engage in such an awesome state of life.” In an attempt to put a damper on this contest about greatness, Pope Francis has put at least a temporary stop on the granting to priests of the honorific title of “Monsignor.”

          Our gospel reading makes it clear that Jesus didn’t overhear what his friends were arguing about. He didn’t need to. He could read people’s thoughts. This is one of a number of occasions in the gospels when he did so.

Jesus responds to the argument about greatness by calling a young child to his side. “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me,” he tells his disciples. “And whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is greatest.” We grasp the full meaning of Jesus’ action and words only when we know that he lived in a society which was anything but child-centered. In Jesus’ world children, like women, were supposed to be seen and not heard.   

When I entered seminary just over 68 years ago, we newcomers were given a book of “Principles,” as they were called, to guide our lives. One of them went like this: “Choose for yourself the lowest place, not because of modesty, but because it is most fit for you. There is always someone whose burden is heavier than yours. Find him out, and if you can, help him.”

I’ve never forgotten that. Nor should you.  

 

 

Friday, September 23, 2016

"THEY WERE AFRAID TO ASK HIM."


Homily for Sept. 24th, 2016: Luke 9:43-45.

          “They were all amazed at [Jesus’] every deed,” today’s brief gospel reading begins. Immediately before this verse Luke has described Jesus’ healing of an epileptic boy, the only son of his father (9:38). The man has already asked Jesus’ disciples for healing, without success. The youth has an epileptic fit even as he is being brought to Jesus. The Lord heals the boy with a word and gives him back to his father. “And all who saw it marveled at the greatness of God,” Luke tells us (vs. 43a).  The opening words of our gospel today follow immediately: “All were amazed at [Jesus’] every deed.”  

          Jesus breaks into the people’s amazement to tell them something he wants them to remember. “Pay attention to what I am telling you” are the words we heard. What Luke writes literally is: “lay up in your ears these words. The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.” This is so jarring that Jesus’ hearers do not understand it. “They were afraid to ask him about this saying,” Luke tells us.

          To understand this fear we must realize that the miracle of healing which the people have just witnessed, indeed all Jesus’ miracles, kindled in them a desire for something we all want: a success story. Being betrayed into the hands of men certainly didn’t sound like success. No wonder the people were afraid to enquire too deeply about Jesus’ meaning.

          The day would come, however, when people would understand. After Jesus’ death and burial his women disciples, more faithful than the men, visit his tomb as soon as the Sabbath rest is over, intending to do what had been impossible Friday evening, when the Sabbath had already begun: anoint the Lord’s body. The women find not Jesus’ body but “two men in dazzling garments” (clearly angels) who ask them: “Why do you search for the Living One among the dead? He is not here; he has been raised up.” And then, Luke tells us, the angels tell the women: “Remember what he said to you while he was sill in Galilee – that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” “With this reminder,” Luke writes, “[Jesus’] words came back to them” (Lk 24:4-8).

          We pray, then, in this Mass: “Open our ears, Lord Jesus, to listen to your words. And   when we do not understand, give us patience to await the day when we shall understand: when we shall see you face to face. Amen”

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A TIME FOR EVERYTHING


Homily for September 23rd, 2016: Ecclesiastes 3:1-11.

          I told you yesterday that the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes, with its repeated refrain, “All is vanity,” is often called the most cynical book in the Bible. It brings us not good news, but the bad news that life is indeed empty, “vanity,” unless we center our lives on the Lord God. In the midst of this bad news, however, we come upon a passage that is like finding an oasis in a desert: the assurance which we heard in today’s first reading, that “There is an appointed time for every thing under the heavens.”

          In words of great beauty the author, called Qoheleth, a word of uncertain meaning, often translated “the Preacher,” says that there is “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant; a time to tear down, and a time to build. A time to weep, and a time to laugh . . . A time to be silent, and a time to speak.”  

The full and rounded person makes time for each of these pairs of opposites. There are times when it is important to speak. At other times silence is more appropriate. When I entered seminary 68 years ago we newcomers were given a little book called “Principles.” One of them went like this: “The conversation of the brethren should help and cheer us, but God’s voice speaks most often in silence. Keep some part of every day free from all noise and the voices of men, for human distraction and craving for it hinder divine peace.” I’ve tried to do that in all the years since I first read those words.

About the final sentence in this short reading, Bible scholars have been disputing for over 2000 years. God “has made everything appropriate to its time, and has put the timeless into [people’s] hearts.” What is this “timeless”? I believe it is the sense, inborn in us but rejected by the book’s author, that there is a world beyond this one, and a life beyond death. It is for this that we are born and made: to serve God, our loving heavenly Father, faithfully here on earth; but beyond that to be happy with him forever in heaven.

 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

LAZARUS, THE MAN GOD HELPED


26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. Luke 16: 19-21

          Like many of the parables, this one is a story of contrasts. These are stark, both in this life and in the hereafter. The rich man has every comfort that money can buy. The beggar at his gate has only his name: Lazarus, a word which means “may God help,” or “the one whom God helps.” This name is significant, as we shall see.

          The rich man’s clothing (“purple and linen”) and lifestyle (he “feasted splendidly every day”) proclaim abundance and luxury. He is far above the social-economic level of Jesus’ ordinary hearers. According to the conventional morality of the day, however, which viewed wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, the hearers would have admired the rich man as an upright pillar of society. 

          The contrast between the two men in the story extends to the smallest details. The rich man is “clothed in purple and fine linen.” Lazarus is “covered with sores.” The rich man “feasted splendidly every day.” Lazarus “longed to eat the scraps” of bread discarded by the rich man and his guests at their daily banquets. The rich man is active. Lazarus is passive, unable even to fend off the dogs whose attentions increase his misery. We are not even told that Lazarus begged. He simply lies there at the rich man’s gate, unnoticed by the rich man as he passes in and out each day. The rich man is an insider, Lazarus is the quintessential outsider.

          Death reverses these contrasts. “The beggar died,” Jesus tells us with stark economy of language. The description becomes richer, however, as we hear about Lazarus (still passive) being lifted out of this world, in which he had been a neglected outsider, and “carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham.” Lazarus is now the quintessential insider.

          Unlike Lazarus, the rich man has a funeral: “The rich man likewise died and was buried.” Now he becomes the outsider, buried in the ground of this world. Where previously he had “feasted splendidly”, now he is “in torment.” His daily feasting is replaced by craving for a drop of water to cool his tongue, parched from the flames which surround him. 

          And now the rich man does something he has not done before. For the first time, Jesus tells us, “he raised his eyes and saw Lazarus” — no longer near, however, but “afar off” in Abraham’s bosom, in a place of honor, like the “disciple whom Jesus loved” leaning on the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper (cf. John 13: 23ff). 

          The significance of Lazarus’ name is now manifest. He is the man whom God helps. Ignored in life — by the rich man, his guests, and everyone else — Lazarus is disclosed at death as someone especially dear to God, who sends angels to carry him to a place of consolation and honor. This would have puzzled the story’s first hearers, accustomed to thinking that unfortunates like Lazarus were receiving the just reward for their sins. 

          Equally disturbing for the hearers would have been the rich man’s punishment. This cannot have been the consequence of his wealth, for Abraham was rich. Nowhere does Jesus say that the mere possession of wealth brings condemnation or that poverty guarantees salvation. Like those on the king’s left hand in Matthew’s parable of the sheep and the goats, the rich man is punished not for anything he did, but for what he failed to do. In that other parable those at the king’s left protest at the injustice of their condemnation, demanding to know when they have ever transgressed God’s law. The rich man in this parable utters no protest. Seeming to recognize the justice of his fate, he merely asks that Lazarus (still passive) be sent “to dip the tip of his finger in water and refresh my tongue, for I am tortured in these flames.” The rich man has forgotten nothing and learned nothing. He still assumes that he can command others to do his bidding. Significantly, however, he directs his request not to Lazarus but to Abraham, a wealthy man like himself, but unlike him a model of hospitality. 

          Abraham’s response is gentle. Addressing his petitioner as “my child,” Abraham discloses that the separation between the rich man and Lazarus, formerly the result merely of the former’s neglect and hence reversible, is now permanent because established by God. 

          The dialogue which follows takes the parable to a new level. The rich man, who for the first time has “raised his eyes” and seen Lazarus, now makes his first move to repair his previous failure by helping others. Still assuming that others are there to serve him, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers on earth as “a warning, so they may not end in this place of torment.” Abraham’s response to this seemingly reasonable request sounds callous: “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear them.” The rich man immediately counters with an objection as plausible as his original request. “No, Father Abraham. ... But if someone would only go to them from the dead, then they would repent.” 

          Across the distance of some seventy-five years I can still recall my reaction to the annual reading of this gospel in my youth, on one of the many Sundays after Pentecost. ‘He’s got a point there,’ I thought each time I heard the rich man’s objection. ‘If someone were to go them from the dead, that would shake them up!’  Enlightenment came one Sunday during my teens, when, listening to this gospel, I realized: ‘Hey. A man did rise from the dead once. It didn’t shake anyone up. The only people who believed in him were those who had believed in him before, and even they had to overcome initial skepticism.’ 

          Luke’s language confirms this youthful insight. Abraham speaks of resurrection: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if one should rise from the dead.” “Moses and the prophets” means simply “Holy Scripture.” Jesus uses Abraham’s refusal of the rich man’s final request to state what Jesus himself has already experienced many times over: signs and wonders, no matter how dramatic, can never compel faith in those who have not already gained faith through attentive reading or hearing of God’s word. The greatest of all Jesus’ signs was the empty tomb of Easter morning. It was the occasion of faith to one man only: the disciple whom Jesus loved, as he is called in John’s gospel (cf. John 20: 2-8). Jesus’ other followers came to faith in the resurrection only through seeing the risen Lord. Those who had refused to believe in him before the crucifixion had a simple explanation for the empty tomb, reported in Matthew 28:12-15: Jesus’ disciples stole his body while the soldiers guarding the tomb slept.

          Abraham’s seemingly callous reminder that the rich man’s brothers need only “Moses and the prophets” to avoid his fate is Jesus’ way of telling his hearers, ourselves included, that present circumstances are always enough for us to believe in God and serve him. Most of us, most of the time, live and work in circumstances that are less than ideal. Confronted with our modest achievements, we plead that they are a consequence of our limited opportunities. When things change and we get into better circumstances, we shall be able to accomplish so much more. That is an illusion.        

          The golden opportunities that beckon on the other side of the horizon will never arrive if we are not using the opportunities, however limited, that are before us right now. It is here and now, in the present moment (the only time we ever have) that we are called to faith in God, and to generous service of God and others — and not somewhere else, tomorrow, when everything changes at the touch of some magic wand and our lives cease to be drab and become wonderful.   

          The parable tells that we must listen to God’s word. If we do this, not just occasionally, but faithfully — day after day, week by week and year after year — we shall find ourselves strengthened, guided, and fed. Faithful, patient sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening and pondering his words like Mary of Bethany, will enable us to understand the words of Cleopas and his unnamed companion after their encounter with the risen Lord at Emmaus on the first Easter evening: “Were not our hearts burning inside us as he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32) .

          To be close to the Lord, we need to do also what the rich man in the parable failed to do. We need to see the needs of those around us. And like the despised outsider in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we need to minister to those needs in caring, costing ways. The Lord seldom demands heroism. Often a kind word, a friendly gesture, or an encouraging smile is enough. But unless we are open to the needs of those we encounter on life’s way, and are trying to meet those needs, we shall discover one day that we have lived far from God, no matter how many prayers we have said. And if we have lived far from God in this life, we shall live far from him in eternity. God’s judgment is not something imposed on us from without. It is his ratification of the judgment we make in this life by the way we choose to live here and now. 

          This story of the rich man and Lazarus is clearly a parable of judgment.  God’s judgment need not be fearful, however. In reality it is part of the good news.  The judgment meted out in this parable to Lazarus — passive throughout and speaking never a word — assures 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 RenĂ© 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 ostracized and persecuted because of the Son of Man receive their unbelievably great reward.

          That too is the gospel proclaimed by this parable. That is the good news.

"ALL IS VANITY."


Homily for September 22nd, 2016: Ecclesiastes 1:2-11.

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher. Vanity of vanities!” Is that good news -- to be told that life is empty and without meaning, which is what those words are saying? Hardly. The book which begins with those words, Ecclesiastes, repeats them like a refrain. Ecclesiastes has been called the most cynical book in the Bible. It contains the bad news that we need to hear to prepare us for the good news brought to us by Jesus Christ.

The bad news is that life is indeed empty B Avanity,@ Ecclesiastes calls it B if we organize our lives apart from God. Is there anyone here who has done that? Probably not. Your presence here at a weekday Mass shows that God does have a place in your life. The question for us, therefore, is not: ADoes God have a place in my life?@ but rather: AWhat place does God have in my life? Is he at the center? Or have I pushed God out toward the fringe of my life?@   

As long as our lives are not centered on God – but on our own desires, our plans for a wonderful future, for possessions, pleasure, power over others, for recognition and fame – then we’ll never be happy. Why? Because if any of those things is central to us, our life will be organized around getting; and we’ll always be frustrated, because we’ll never get enough. 

The World War II British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill B not an especially religious man B said once: AWe make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.@ Churchill was right. Jesus says the same in different words: “There is more happiness in giving than in receiving” (Acts 20:35).

At the end of the day, there are basically two kinds of people: takers and givers. It is only the givers who find true and lasting happiness. No generous giver ever found life empty and meaningless –“vanity,” to use Ecclesiastes’ word. Giving people find life full of joy. And it was to give us joy that the Lord God sent his Him into the word who says in John’s gospel: “Live on in my love . . . that my joy may be yours and your joy may be compete” (15:9-11).

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

THE CALL OF MATTHEW


Homily for Sept. 20th, 2016: Luke 8:19-21.

          Jesus’ mother and his brother come to visit him, our gospel tells us. His brothers? The word which Luke uses means “relatives” or “kinsmen.” From antiquity Catholics have believed that Mary had no other children but Jesus. Having given herself completely to God by responding to the angel’s message that she was to be mother of God’s son with the words, “Be it done to me according to your word,” it was inconceivable that Mary could give herself to another. This is why she is called “Mary ever virgin.” 

          Jesus’ mother and his other relatives were unable to get to him, we heard, “because of the crowd.” Those four words give us a glimpse of what life was like for the Lord on most days of his public ministry. He was constantly hemmed in by people: shoving, pushing, shouting, trying to get his attention. This explains why Jesus retreated, whenever he could, to what the gospels call “a deserted place” – somewhere where he could be alone with his heavenly Father. 

          When Jesus is told that his mother and other relatives are trying to get to him through the crowd, he responds with words that sound like a put-down: “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” In reality the words are not dismissive. Can there be any doubt that Mary truly listened to God’s word and acted on it? Jesus’ words are extensive: they extend the limits of his family to anyone who truly listens to his teaching and acts on it – in other words, to us.

          God’s word comes to us in many ways: through Holy Scripture, read out here in church, or pondered over as we read the Bible for ourselves. God’s word comes to us also through the teaching of his Church, and through the still, small, but powerful voice of conscience.

          How better, then, could we respond to Jesus’ words in today’s gospel than with the simple prayer of the boy Samuel, when he heard his name being called as he was sleeping in the Temple: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:10).

Monday, September 19, 2016

JESUS' TRUE FAMILY


Homily for Sept. 20th, 2016: Luke 8:19-21.

          Jesus’ mother and his brother come to visit him, our gospel tells us. His brothers? The word which Luke uses means “relatives” or “kinsmen.” From antiquity Catholics have believed that Mary had no other children but Jesus. Having given herself completely to God by responding to the angel’s message that she was to be mother of God’s son with the words, “Be it done to me according to your word,” it was inconceivable that Mary could give herself to another. This is why she is called “Mary ever virgin.” 

          Jesus’ mother and his other relatives were unable to get to him, we heard, “because of the crowd.” Those four words give us a glimpse of what life was like for the Lord on most days of his public ministry. He was constantly hemmed in by people: shoving, pushing, shouting, trying to get his attention. This explains why Jesus retreated, whenever he could, to what the gospels call “a deserted place” – somewhere where he could be alone with his heavenly Father. 

          When Jesus is told that his mother and other relatives are trying to get to him through the crowd, he responds with words that sound like a put-down: “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” In reality the words are not dismissive. Can there be any doubt that Mary truly listened to God’s word and acted on it? Jesus’ words are extensive: they extend the limits of his family to anyone who truly listens to his teaching and acts on it – in other words, to us.

          God’s word comes to us in many ways: through Holy Scripture, read out here in church, or pondered over as we read the Bible for ourselves. God’s word comes to us also through the teaching of his Church, and through the still, small, but powerful voice of conscience.

          How better, then, could we respond to Jesus’ words in today’s gospel than with the simple prayer of the boy Samuel, when he heard his name being called as he was sleeping in the Temple: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:10).