At one point in the story of “Testing of Abraham,” as Abraham and Isaac are on the way to carry out what Abraham believed was the Lord’s will that he sacrifice his son, Isaac presented him with the inevitable and pointed question: “Father,” he said, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Now, imagine that you are Abraham; imagine how you would feel if your son, the son of the promise that was at long last fulfilled miraculously by God, the son whom you loved above anything that you could possibly imagine, the son whom you are at that very moment taking to the place where you are about to offer him in sacrifice to the God who gave him to you, asked you that question? How on earth would you answer him? Could you answer him? Would you tell him the truth? Would you lie to him? Well, this is how he did answer him: “My son,” Abraham said, “God Himself will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” So, did Abraham lie to his beloved son? I contend not. I argue that he shared with his son the only truth that his faith would allow him to believe and on which he depended. I believe that the only hope that kept him going was the hope that somehow, provided that he was totally obedient to what he truly believed was the will of God, he would come back down that mountain with his son by his side. And that is what did happen. God did provide the sheep for the sacrifice. There was a ram caught in the thicket. That, I believe, is the invaluable lesson of this story. For those who are faithful and obedient to the Lord no matter what He asks, no matter what it costs, no matter how much sense it does not seem to make, there will always be, at the very last moment, a ram caught in the thicket and the promise of the Lord will always remain intact.
Once again last week, we heard the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert. Of course, we know He knows that he won a dramatic victory over Satan and that His victory is meant to inspire our own victory over temptation during this season of Lent, but I can’t help but thinking, does anyone ever fight temptation anymore? I mean, really, does anyone see any value in such an arcane struggle in the present day? Perhaps I am seeing the glass as half empty, but I do think I have valid reasons to be concerned. We are so affected by the modern culture that I even wonder if we recognize sin any more or the value of trying to stay away from it – and that is the very reason that Jesus died on the cross! Have we actually gotten to the point where we really value trying to stay away from the very thing (sin) from which Jesus came to save us? Honestly, I am very worried. It would take many books to analyze the negative effects of modern culture on us, but I can at least mention what I call “the four big lies” by which we are tremendously affected, whether we can admit it or not. The first lie, or fallacy, is that any action is perfectly acceptable as long as no one gets hurt. This is the old “victimless crime” theory. The problem with this is that there is no such thing. If we commit sin, no matter how “private” someone always gets hurt. It is not okay to hurt ourselves, or God, or anyone else and sin always hurts all three. The second lie is that it is psychologically harmful to deny ourselves of anything that we want-and really, if we want something, we need it; don’t we? Therefore, if I want something, I am harming myself if I don’t act to get it. This kind of thinking is so pervasive that I actually know of multiple cases in which professional counselors tried to explain to the wives of their unfaithful clients, that they had to be unfaithful, or else they would be unhappy! The third lie is that human beings cannot overcome temptation. Therefore parents should supply their teen children with means of birth control, and provide them with “safe havens” to abuse alcohol because they would not be able to refrain from sex or beer etc. This kind of thinking denies young people of the human dignity to which they, believe it or not, want to be held. Last, but certainly not least is the lie that because we are living in modern times we need a whole new set of moral guidelines. Because things have changed so much and because we are have learned so much and have become “enlightened,” we simply can no longer abide by the antiquated values of the past. Therefore, no one can be expected to refrain from sex before marriage, and certainly we now realize that same sex marriage is to be regarded in the same way as traditional marriage. What is amazing about this one is that, while we think we are so enlightened, we are not quite enlightened enough to realize that countless cultures bought this lie before us. And guess where they are now? Well they are exactly where we will be if we also buy it-on the ash heap of history just like the Romans at the hands of the barbarians. You see, the bottom line is this: there is good, there is evil, there is right there is wrong, and they are here to stay. And human beings are always tempted to sin. But Jesus gives us the means to victory. His lesson is that we don’t have to be slaves to sin. All that we have to do is struggle to resist temptation, and when we fall we turn to Him and keep on striving-and the victory is ours. The only question is does any of this matter to us anymore?
The story of Jesus healing the leper is another one of those stories of which we are very familiar and which we have heard over and over again. And as I have said before, this can be very dangerous. Why? Because we might have a tendency to consciously or subconsciously “tune it out” as soon as recognize it because, after all, it is a “rerun.” But in so doing we cheat ourselves of the blessings and benefits of the “always new” message of the scriptures and we eliminate another opportunity for the Lord to inspire us. So let’s go. Imagine the leper. Imagine the courage he must have had to leave his leper colony, the suffering he must have endured on the way, both physically and from every encounter with another human being he had to endure before he got to where Jesus was. Imagine also, his sense of desperation. Maybe we have felt something like that before; maybe we are feeling something like that right now. But desperation is not all bad. It might be sometimes just what we need to finally bring ourselves, like the leper to the feet of Christ, where he cried out, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” St. Mark says that Jesus was ‘moved with pity.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know of any other reality in the entire Gospel ever “moving” Jesus other than human suffering and His desire to heal it. Not war, not evil, not sin, or anything else causes Jesus to be moved-but human suffering does. We also need to understand that His desire to heal us goes much deeper than our own desire to be healed. I am sure that sometimes we have been to the doctor when we were in pain and so much wanted to be relieved of it. The doctor will do what he/she can and then tell us how we need to change our behavior so that we might not experience that pain again. At times like that we might realize that we actually are much more interested in getting rid of the pain than getting rid of some of our behaviors that might have led up to the pain. It is much the same with Jesus. He desired to heal not just the leper’s skin, but his heart and soul as well. Jesus does not only want to heal the pain that evil brings us, but the cause of that evil as well. But He will not take away our free will. We have to choose to bring ourselves to Him, despite all the very real obstacles in our way and cry out just as the leper did. And when we do, we will discover that Jesus’ desire to heal us is much more than skin deep.
Remember the shows/movies ‘Mission Impossible’ where the super hero, more recently Tom Cruise, is presented with the challenge to accept (or not) what appears to be a death sentence ‘Mission’ which against all odds if accomplished saves the ‘world’. The death defying mission is accepted but with an accompanying and concluding statement from the secret government agency stating when the going gets rough our hero and his team are on their own with no confirmation of their assignment and/or support from the agency.
Today’s gospel account has Christ saying ”Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” Christ incarnate, became man accepting from the Father the ‘Mission’, never denied by the Father. He did all this while facing twists and turns in his short life/‘Mission’ to save the world just as Tom Cruise faced in an episode of Mission Impossible. Defying cultural past practices, turning the world upside down, proposing a change in life and facing the devil himself Christ moved forward, facing not a threat of death but death itself to save the world.
And then there is us – the apostles then, their followers. You and me today – we are presented the ‘Mission’ as you will, at Baptism, ‘Mission’ confirmed at Confirmation and never in our journey denied affiliation with the Father. Through the sacraments -- especially the Eucharist and Penance -- we are connected refreshed and strengthened during our lifelong journey. We have the ‘Mission’ to live our life in Christ. As the apostles we are commanded “go out and teach all nations”. So it follows that we too live and teach others by our very actions and words thus saving the world. As we reflect on this gospel we can do so knowing that our ‘Mission’ should we accept it (as we have the freedom of choice) is never a Mission Impossible.
I remember once as a teacher in high school I happened to be walking down one of the school hallways a few minutes after the bell to begin classes had rung and I saw a teacher standing just outside his classroom door. As I came closer, I noticed that he looked a bit distraught and then he said to me, “Father, I’m pretty much at the end of my line. I can’t do anything with this boy. He doesn’t listen to a word I say.” As I was listening to him, I saw just inside the door that there was a young man, a sophomore, standing on a chair entertaining the rest of the class. I did not know him that well as he was not in any of my classes, but I did know his name. I stepped inside the room, snapped my fingers, pointed in a downward direction and in what I thought was a rather gentle voice, said “Yo Phillip, sit down.” I spoke briefly to him and to the class about proper classroom decorum. As I was about to leave the teacher thanked me profusely for my help and said he didn’t know what he would have done if I had not passed by. As I left I found myself wondering why Phillip and his classmates listened so readily to me and would not give their teacher the time of day. I also remembered how during my first year of teaching it was very difficult for me to maintain discipline in my classroom, but that, beginning with my second year, I had very few discipline problems. It really was all about authority. The teacher I helped that day, did not have it. I did not have it my first year. But I did, at least to an extent, develop some authority as I went along. All of this helps me to recognize the authority of Jesus. What gave Him His authority? I think it has to do with the a couple realities: who He was, what He said, why He was saying it, and who He said it for. Jesus, in one of my favorite quotes says, “All this I tell you that my joy may be yours and your joy may be complete.” I think that He answers pretty much all those questions with that statement. Jesus is the Messiah who speaks the truth that is easily recognized, and spoken for the benefit of His listeners for whom He cares deeply. One of the things I learned about my students is that, whether they knew it or not, they wanted their teachers to have authority. When they recognized authority in their teachers they felt safer. The same is true with us and Jesus. His authority allows us to have peace. It truly is a beautiful thing.
I’m sure that we remember Jonah, who, although fictional, is one of my favorite biblical characters. Jonah found peace in a rather strange place- the belly of a whale. But before we chuckle, we should take a moment to reflect on the rather odd places where we have either found or have attempted to find peace, albeit a peace that was at best only temporary. You see Jonah had sinned against God. God called him to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh, but he hopped onto the first boat going in the opposite direction because Jonah hated the Ninevites. But then a great storm erupted, as storms do erupt when we try to run from God, and Jonah had himself, thrown overboard so that his shipmates might be saved. That’s where the whale enters the scene and rescues him. Inside the whale, Jonah was basically able to go on retreat: he offered praise and thanksgiving to God and repented for his disobedience. He found a kind of peace, but only for a while. But what about the Ninevites? They were still there, and they still needed to be saved, they needed to be set free of their slavery to sin. If his story ended here we would not be talking about Jonah today. After Jonah repented, the whale immediately spewed him out onto dry land and God once again called him to go to Nineveh. This time he went and the Ninevites were saved. So Jonah went off and lived happily ever after, right? Wrong!!! He cursed God and climbed the nearest mountain from where could watch the city and prayed to God to destroy the city. Remember he hated the Ninevites. Also he lamented the intense heat and thought he was going to die because of it. So God raised up for him a large plant that he used for shade and Jonah found relief-but only for a while. The plant quickly shriveled up and died and Jonah once again cursed God-this time for destroying the plant. Now this is where God steps in and teaches him a lesson. God points out to him that Jonah’s priorities were way off. He cared more about the silly plant than the thousands of Ninevites who desperately needed the message given them. So, aren’t we thankful, that we are not like Jonah since of course we have all our priorities lined up with the will of God and cheerfully live our lives accordingly?
“God has created me for some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have a mission. I may never know exactly what that mission is in this life. I shall be told it in the next. I have a part in a great work. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for nothing. I shall do good. I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, even if I do not realize what I am doing. But, if I keep His commandments, I will serve Him in my calling.”
These are not my words, although I wish they were. They are the words of John Henry Cardinal Newman who was an intellectual who lived in England from 1801-1890. His study and thought led him to convert from the Anglican Church to Catholicism. He entered the priesthood and later became a Cardinal. He has been beatified by Pope Benedict.
I have to think that the words of our Scripture passages this weekend were close to his mind and heart when he penned this quote, but even if that is not the case it certainly is true that his words are close to my mind and heart as I ponder these passages.
Like Newman’s words, the words of the readings make it clear that we are all called by the Lord and that we have an innate need to stay connected to Him and that the only way for us to experience true fulfillment is for us to find and carry out the specific purpose for which we were created.
We all have general callings and specific callings. All of us in this parish are called to serve God. But our individual calling is more specific than simply a general call to serve the Lord. We are called to serve Him in the specific vocations to which he leads us. There are young men here at St. Aloysius who are called to serve the Lord as priests or religious. There are young women here who are called to serve the Lord as religious sisters. There are many who are called to serve the Lord by faithfully living out a vocation to the married life and there are some who are called to joyfully serve the Lord in the single life.
But His call does not stop there. It’s not as if once we discern our vocations the story is over and we live happily ever after. That is just the beginning. Besides, happily ever after is so very boring. We are not finished discerning God’s will simply because we have determined that we are called to the consecrated life, the married life or the single life. We are still very much discerning the specific purpose that God has for us and pray that we are on the right track to fulfilling it.
During my father’s funeral Mass it struck me that perhaps God’s specific purpose for me was actually to gift my dad with a priest son to celebrate his passing from this life to the next. The more I thought about it I thought maybe that could actually be the case. Who’s to say what is in the mind of God? However, while I obviously don’t know for sure, I wonder if that is still the case, simply because I am still walking around on this earth. Although, I can’t say this for, sure my guess is that once we have fulfilled our purpose in life, He takes us home, but then again, what do I know? I’m just trying to continue my discernment like every one else.
So how do we discern God’s calls- from the general to the specific? I think we can take some clues from our readings and from Cardinal Newman’s words. We have to stay connected to the Lord on a very regular basis. We need to stay with Him. Remember, Samuel was sleeping in the Temple of the Lord. The two disciples stayed with the Lord that day and then stayed with Him as he walked the earth for the next three years. Because they stayed with Him their lives were changed forever. If we look at our own lives just a little bit we can see that we have a great need and desire to stay connected with our peers and with the world around us. We don’t want to miss anything. How much time do we spend on facebook, or sending and receiving text messages or checking scores etc? How hard is it for some of us to even imagine the thought of missing some game or TV show or some social event? We have a vested interest in staying super-connected. It’s as if modern means of communication have become our lifeblood.
The same needs to be true of our relationship with God. The need we have to stay connected is only a sign that points to our deep spiritual need to stay connected with God. He will not impose Himself on us but He so desires for us to bring ourselves to Him continually so that He can reveal Himself ever more deeply to us. He has so much to show to us and He doesn’t want us to miss a thing, and He knows that that is what we so much need in our lives so that we can experience fulfillment.
In addition to staying connected with the Lord through prayer, we need to study, listen to and reflect on His word in the Scriptures. The Scriptures help us to hear His words in our prayer time with Him. We also need other people to help us in our discernment. Discernment is not something that we can do on our own. While our peers and friends can be of value in this area, we do need to go beyond them and seek guidance from trusted folks who just might be a little bit more experienced in the spiritual life. The two disciples in the Gospel had John the Baptist; the boy Samuel had Eli. John the Baptist literally pointed Jesus out to the disciples; Eli told Samuel what to say when the Lord called.
“Speak, Lord for your servant is listening.” These of course, are the words that Eli gave to Samuel, but they signify much more than just words. They point to a whole disposition of openness and listening to the Lord. We can’t just simply at some arbitrary point decide that we are going to pull ourselves away from our frantic lives, shut off our ipods, smart phones or whatever, quiet ourselves down and say, “Ok, Lord, you can speak now; I’m listening.” As a matter of fact, I would daresay that when we do make time for prayer, it’s usually more like we’re saying, “Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking,” rather than the other way around. When we pray we so often are very rushed and feel like we have to voice every need and concern and petition to Him and before you know it we’re off and on our way and God never had a chance to get a word in edgewise. And besides, God doesn’t work that way any way. He’s going to speak softly, in His time, in such a way that can only truly be heard in the context of a well nurtured relationship.
After consistently spending truly quiet time with Him for an extended period of time, we start to discover that we do in fact have a relationship with Him. We don’t so much feel the need to dominate our time with Him with our voiced prayers and petitions because we begin to realize that He knows what we need even more than we do ourselves and that He is always there for us. We gradually begin to want to simply “be” there with Him and even for Him. We start to understand that He pretty much always has a little something for us and we don’t want to miss it, we realize that He is ever so gradually inviting us into the depth of His plan for us. Eventually our disposition changes and more and more we want to serve Him because we know that is how we find our peace. Finally we find ourselves disposed like the psalmist to say “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will,” or as Samuel to say, “Speak, Lord for your servant is listening,” as a way of inviting, not commanding the Lord to reveal Himself to us.
All of this takes a great deal of time and effort, just like it takes time and effort to keep up with all of our peers etc, but we do so, because staying connected is so important to us and we don’t want to miss anything. The Lord invites us as into a life long relationship which leads us to discovering the very purpose of our creation and fulfillment in this life. And we can be sure that this is not something that we want to miss.
Over 24 years ago I met a man named Mr. Rose who was a parishioner in the first parish to which I was assigned as a priest. My guess was that he was about 45 years old but I never really knew for sure. I don’t think I ever learned his name until my second year in the parish but I had become familiar with his face almost as soon as I had arrived in the parish. He came to Mass every Sunday and attended almost every parish activity by himself. He sat in the middle of the center pew of the church, he wore one of two very similar looking suits every time I saw him, and although he was very polite I don’t know that I ever saw him engage any one in an actual conversation. If I ever encountered him personally it was after Mass while I was greeting parishioners. He would simply nod as he went by. He was intriguing because of his almost complete silence, his persistent presence and the sadness that always seemed to emanate from him. I wondered if I was ever going to get to know him and his story; and then one day he called the parish office for an appointment and wanted to see me. We met several times over the next few months. He was a single man who worked at a grocery store. He explained that he had been feeling sad ever since his mother died and he did not know how to shake it. At first I told him that it was very normal to feel sad after losing a parent and that at the very least it would probably take a full year before things would begin to feel somewhat normal again. But he explained that it had been several years and he still felt pretty much the same way. I asked him how long it was since his mother had passed and he said that it was now well over 10 years ago. I have to say that this was very surprising to me. Here was a middle aged man who had been talking to me as if his mother had died in the very recent past but now I realized that he had been in this state of malaise for over a decade and saw no way to ever change his life situation. It was as if the life he had lived had simply been dealt to him and that he had no control or even influence over it. He was an only child who had lived in the same house from the time he was born and was now living there by himself since his mother’s death. I saw, however, that he did want to rise above his sadness, and although, I did not know the answer, I hoped very much that I could help him. Then finally at one of our meetings I asked him the following question. “Mr. Rose,” I said, “have you ever done anything for anyone?” He kind of looked a bit puzzled at first, as if he wondered what my question had to do with his situation, but after a bit of a pause he said that he really could not remember any time that he extended himself to anyone. I explained to him that helping other people always tended to lift my spirits and I thought maybe it would help him as well. The rest, as they say is history. Mr. Rose agreed to help out at a local soup kitchen and became a regular there. Eventually he became very involved in the parish, and especially in any service activities. He became much more socially outgoing and his spirits rose almost exponentially. He wrote to me a couple years after I had been transferred and thanked me for the time I had shared with him and that he had come to see my question as an “epiphany,” that literally brought him to new life. You know what, folks? I think Mr. Rose’s epiphany can be an epiphany for each of us. If we ever feel like we are in a rut that we can’t get out of, there is nothing like asking ourselves what we can do for others to pick ourselves up. Isn’t that what the three wise men did? They took themselves out of their own safe little comfort zones and ended up walking differently for the rest of their lives. That’s what happened with Mr. Rose. He brought himself to new life. I’m thinkin’ it could happen to us too.
That is something that simply cannot be denied. If we love, we give and give generously from our hearts from our substance and not from our surplus. God so loved the world that He gave us His only Son. Jesus so loved us that He gave us His life totally and completely. Advent of course is a time of preparation, a time to prepare ourselves to celebrate the birth of Christ. But it is more than that; it more than getting ready for a birthday party. It is about becoming more like Him so that we might be ready to celebrate an eternity with Him in Heaven. In order to do that we need to allow ourselves to grow to become people who love and who give-like He and the Father love and give. Hopefully we all have experienced the joy that giving of ourselves brings back to us. Nothing makes me feel better than when I know that I have truly sacrificed for the good of another. When we reflect on those who we respect in life, we undoubtedly bring to mind people who have given tremendously of themselves to us. No one is ever honored for how much they have taken, but many are honored for what they have given. Yet we hold ourselves back from giving. Why? Maybe it is because we are afraid. We are afraid that we can’t give anything away because then we won’t have enough for ourselves. So we hold on to everything and become misers. And misers are miserable. Or maybe we are afraid of being taken advantage of. We are afraid that if we give something to someone they will use our gift improperly so we use that as a justification for not giving. Or maybe we simply are takers. We can only think of what we can get out of a given situation. Maybe we are somewhere in between; maybe we will give if we have a reasonable assurance that we will get something of equal value back in return. A true giver does not worry about what they may or may not get back in return. They only look to help others. Folks, that’s how we make straight the way of the Lord, by making our hearts like His. Not too long ago, I was talking like this to someone right after Mass and he said, “So Father, what you are saying is that we can buy our way into Heaven.” And I said, “No, but I do think that just maybe we can give our way in.” And there is a big difference.
I often say that for a number of reasons this month presents us with a wonderful opportunity to move into a very reflective frame of mind. The change of the seasons, the colder weather, the shorter days, the celebrations of All Saints, All Souls and Thanksgiving all come together and call us to take a closer look at our relationships with the world, with those who have gone before us, with each other and with God. Today’s Solemnity of Christ the King indeed provides us with a most fitting opportunity to bring these thoughts to a fitting conclusion. As we ponder our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God and King of the Universe we can focus on His purpose and ours. Jesus was sent by God the Father to open the gates of Heaven so that we might spend eternity in Heaven with them. Indeed, we and all those who have gone before us are or will be defined by where we are on the path to Heaven. The souls in hell are those who have refused to accept the love the grace and the mercy of God and in so doing have rejected Heaven. You might argue that you don’t believe in hell because why would a loving God create it and why would He send anyone there? The answer is that He didn’t and He doesn’t. As far as the existence of hell I certainly believe in it and I can tell you why. It’s because you can see it on earth. Just look around. We don’t have to wait until we die to choose to get there. The saints (the Church Triumphant) are those souls who are in Heaven. The souls in Purgatory (the Church Suffering) are all those souls who are experiencing a purification in order to be prepared for Heaven and who depend upon our prayers to get them there. And, finally there are all of us (the Church Militant) who are striving to conform our hearts, minds and souls to the Lord so that we might share eternity in Heaven with Him. And so, as we conclude this month and prepare to begin the beginning of another liturgical year on this Christ the King Sunday, we once again ask the question, “So, how do we get to Heaven?” Well, the short answer is that we can’t and that there is nothing that we can do to get us there. Have a good day! Just kidding; sort of. But it is the truth; we can’t do any thing to get us into heaven, at least not by ourselves, and you might say that that is bad news. But there is good news. And the Good News is that we are not alone. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe, to us to make it
Now please just wait a minute before answering that question. Obviously, our first inclination would be to think that of course we would be perfectly comfortable in heaven. Why wouldn’t we be? But on the other hand, we need to remember that heaven is forever. Isn’t it true that at least sometimes before going to a social event, we try to figure out who will be there, how long will the event be, how we should be dressed whether or not we would fit in etc. etc.? But my guess is that we don’t approach the prospect of going to heaven in the same way. Remember, heaven is described as an eternal banquet. Maybe we should consider the type of souls that will be there and honestly ask ourselves just what kind of souls will be there and try to discern if we would feel comfortable with them-for an eternity. I think we get a clue of type of souls that are in heaven from the parable of the sheep and goats that we heard last week on the Feast of Christ the King. You remember that the goats were sent to eternal damnation and sheep were invited to eternal joy. But why? It always troubles me that the goats were sent to hell, even though Jesus never so much as accused them of a single wrong doing. What was so different about the sheep-why did they get to go to heaven? Actually, on this point the parable is rather clear. The sheep went to heaven because, they were generous, they were kind, they cared about others, they were givers, they demonstrated and poured out their love. They went to heaven because they were more like God than the goats. God the Father is, of course, the ultimate Lover, the ultimate Giver. Remember John 3:16: For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. The sheep had molded and shaped their souls in such a way that they enjoyed doing what God does. Folks, that is what is heaven is advantage of enjoying the process of becoming more and more comfortable with God and like God is. The goats, who were not comfortable with giving, with being generous, with extending themselves to others were simply not able to experience the joy of heaven because heavenly joy can only be experienced by giving of our very selves. Advent, the Season which calls us to becoming more like the God who gives us His only Son, and the Son who gives us His very life, gives us a tremendous opportunity to mold ourselves into much more God like being, who would truly be comfortable in heaven. But do not delay, for we know not the day nor the hour.
The parable of the talents always strikes me as one that always needs another look. I say that because we often seem to fall into our own patterns of thinking and assume that God thinks like us; and we seem to continually compare ourselves with others. When we say it out loud, of course it sounds silly to ever do such a thing, but do it we do. For instance, while the parable does say that the talents were distributed to each one according to the person’s ability, we automatically assume that this means that the one who was most capable received the most talents and so on and so on. But how do we know that’s the way God distributes the talents? How do we know that God does not distribute the most “talents” to those with the least ability instead of the other way around? After all, is it not possible that perhaps, God may feel that those who have the least ability might need special help from Him? Isn’t it possible to think that God ultimately wants the same yield from each of us and so He distributes the talents accordingly? Who is to say that the Lord does not expect the same return from those among us who seem to have the least amount of talent as He expects from those with the most? Maybe He gives less talents to those who have the greatest ability because in His mind they need them less than do those who have less ability. If that is the case, what about those of us who assume, after comparing ourselves with others, that we have very little talent and therefore God is not expecting much of us, and so we bury our talents in the sand? What do we say to the Lord when He says to us, that we had much more ability in His eyes than others who used their talents to accomplish much more than we did? The truth of the matter is that God rightfully expects a bountiful yield from each of us. The greatest tragedy would be that we would compare ourselves to others and bury our God given gifts in the sand.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is continuing to hammer and pound on the scribes and Pharisees as he has been doing for the last several weeks but this time He is talking to the people about them. A challenge for us is to always understand that whatever issue He has with the Pharisees, He also has with us. His main criticism of the Pharisees is that they had turned religion into a means of elevating themselves. By virtue of their position in the Church, they were able to serve themselves instead of the people, which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what they were supposed to be doing. They turned something that was supposed to be all about God and the people into something that was totally about them and their power. Jesus is trying to teach us that the way that the Pharisees and scribes conducted themselves was diametrically opposed to the way He wants us to live. Discipleship is not about us. It is about Jesus, and if we’re honest with ourselves that is a very tough truth for us to truly accept and to live. Discipleship is not about serving ourselves. It is not about accumulating wealth or power, or position or status or favor, etc. It’s about loving God with all our hearts, minds and souls and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Selfishness has no place in the heart of a disciple. Ironically, we do indeed become the best that we can be when we realize that it is all about serving God and His people and not at all about us.
We often associate the word “love” with some pleasant feelings, or intense and delightful emotions. But the word Jesus used for love means something much deeper. It is the word "agape" [AH-gah-pay], and it refers to the love that means desiring communion with something that is good in itself. If we say that we “love” ice cream, of course, we mean that we very much enjoy eating it. We probably do not mean that we want to enter into a spiritual communion with ice cream. If we love a person, (using Jesus’ word “agape”) it means we love spending time with them, getting to know them, and sharing the experiences of life with them. But when it comes to loving God, Jesus wants to make sure that we understand that even the word agape is not enough to completely convey the type of love we are to have for God, ourselves and our neighbor. He says that we must love God with all of our hearts, our minds and our souls. We must love Him with all our hearts; this means we must desire what God desires. We must love God with all our minds; this means we must value and understand things in the same way that He values and understands them. We must love Him with our whole souls; this means we must choose to actively live in accordance with the desires and understanding of His mind and heart. If we love God as Jesus commands us to do, than loving our neighbor as ourselves will pretty much become second nature to us. I would argue in fact that if we truly do love God with all of our hearts, minds and souls it would be virtually impossible for us to do anything but love our neighbors in the way that Jesus envisions us doing. And always remember, the love of Jesus, i.e. Christian love, is much, much more than a feeling.
“Should we pay the tax or not?” The Pharisees and scribes really thought they had Him this time. What was He going to say? (Not that they really cared about the answer He would give; all they cared about was trapping Him.) If He said that they should pay the tax, than surely the crowds that were hanging on His every word and deed would turn against Him and He would cease to have any kind of following and they wouldn’t have to worry about Him any more. If He said that the tax should not be paid, than all they had to do was hand Him over to the Romans. Either way, or so they thought, there simply was no way out for Jesus. But look what happened; Jesus asked for a coin because He didn’t have one. He didn’t have one because He did not rely on money; He was not part of the Roman system. The Roman coinage, the Roman tax had little or no bearing on Him. But who showed Him the coin with Caesar’s insignia? Of course the scribes and Pharisees did, and in so doing they exposed themselves. They exposed themselves as participating in the Roman economic system. Jesus was basically saying to them, “If you are going to play the game with the Romans, than you have to play by their rules.” In other words, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” The problem with the Pharisees and scribes, once again, is that they were hypocrites, and they were easily exposed as such by Jesus. Their question was insincere; they did not care about it at all. They were obsessed with defeating Jesus, and because their motive was not pure, they did not stand a chance up against the pure light of Jesus. They exposed themselves as being part and parcel of the Roman system. That’s why we need to make sure that our motives are pure, that we “Give to God what is God’s”. If they are not we can be sure that we will expose something about ourselves that we do not want the world (or ourselves) to know. Remember, they thought they had Jesus dead to rights. Instead they trapped themselves.
Ingratitude is the substance of every sin, and sin separates us from God, and from the meaningful life that comes from living close to God - it keeps us from accepting God's invitations. And so, a healthy sense of gratitude is one of the best ways to combat sin and stay close to the Lord. Today's parable shows us exactly how to grow this rare and powerful virtue of gratitude: by letting Him change our plans. If the invited guests in the parable had truly respected their king, they would have adjusted their plans for his sake, putting aside their personal preferences for a little while to show their gratitude to Him. God asks us to change our plans in many ways. Let’s talk about two of them. First, when He allows tragedy or suffering in our life. For instance, when a young married couple discovers that they can't have children, God is most definitely asking them to change their plans. This is an invitation to follow God more closely, to join Jesus on the cross, so that they can later join Him in the banquet of the resurrection. He also asks us to change our plans when it becomes risky to act like true Christians in a non-Christian world. Standing up for the rights of the unborn is not always the popular or easy thing to do. Likewise following a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life in today’s world requires almost heroic self-sacrifice. There is a fair chance that in the week to come God will ask each of us to change our plans in some way for the sake of his Kingdom - maybe in something big, maybe in something small. When He does, let's be generous. And show Him that we truly belong to Him, that we truly do believe, as today's Psalm reminds us, that He is our shepherd, and that He will lead us to the fullness of life? Will we; can we, change our plans for Him?
Jesus’ audience could easily identify with the story about an absentee landlord and his not-so-good tenants. It was quite common for the owners to rent out their estates to tenants. Their wealth allowed them to travel and own houses in other places. Jesus’ story, however, was unsettling to some. Why did the scribes and Pharisees in particular feel offended? Jesus’ parable contained both a prophetic message and a warning to the religious community and its leaders. Isaiah had spoken of the house of Israel as “the vineyard of the Lord.” Isaiah warned his people that their unfaithfulness would yield bad fruit if they did not repent and change. Jesus’ listeners understood this parable as a reminder that God will in due time root out bad fruit and put an end to rebellion. What does Jesus’ parable tell us about God? First, it tells us of His generosity and trust. The vineyard is well equipped with everything the tenants need. The owner went away and left the vineyard in the hands of the tenants. God, likewise trusts us enough to give us freedom to live life as we choose. It also tells us of God’s patience and justice. Not one, but many times He forgives the tenants their debts. But while the tenants take advantage of the owner’s patience, His judgment and justice prevail in the end. Jesus foretold both His death and His ultimate triumph. He knew he would be rejected by His own people and be killed, but He also knew that would not be the end. After rejection would come the glory of Resurrection and Ascension to the right hand of the Father. The Lord continues to bless us with the gift of His Kingdom. And He promises that we will bear much fruit if we abide in Him and remain faithful. He entrusts us with His gifts and grace and gives us a particular work to do in His vineyard. He promises that our labor will not be in vain if we persevere with faith to the end. We can expect trials and difficulties as we labor for the Lord, and even persecution from those who oppose His Kingdom. But in the end we will see triumph. Do you labor for the Lord with joyful hope and with confidence in His victory?
Sincerity is a basic human virtue that we love to find in other people, but may find it hard to live ourselves. Hypocrisy makes us blind to God's presence in our lives. We need to be sincere especially in three key areas of our lives. First of all, we need to build up sincerity in our relationship with God. We should never try to impress Him or put on a show for Him. We need to open our hearts to Him completely (He knows them thoroughly already), like little children, so that He can touch our hearts with His transforming grace. Secondly we must be sincere in our relationship with ourselves. We sometimes are less than honest with God about the reasons we do things, making excuses or falling into the habit of quick rationalization. We must take responsibility for our actions, good and bad, confident that God can fix whatever we may break. As Christ said, the truth will set us free. Last but not least, we need to develop sincerity in our words. Sometimes we distort the truth when we talk, we like to flatter people, or make them admire us, so we say things that aren't really true. While we don't have an obligation to tell everyone everything, we do have an obligation to be truthful in what we choose to say. Of course, we know that we have the opportunity to receive Holy Communion virtually every day of our lives. The Eucharist can serve to strengthen our resolve to be people of sincerity with hearts open to God's grace. The pure, white, unleavened bread that is transformed into Christ's body can be an image of sincerity for us. The host itself is indeed beautiful in its simplicity – in its sincerity. As we walk up to receive the Eucharist and return to our pews, let’s pray that we might strive to truly become a sincere person. That indeed would be simply beautiful.
It’s NOT FAIR but is it ‘just’.
It's not fair. How many times have we said it or heard it about things that occur in our life. Today's gospel is certainly an example of that. In fact, that's probably your first reaction when you read it or heard it proclaimed, certainly has been mine for many years until I was pointed in a slightly different direction until thinking about this homily.
The words fair, just, fairness and justice are often used interchangeably. Their application is most important as to determine their definition. Using an example helped me to acquire a better understanding of the two words and how something may not be seen as fair but is viewed just.
Using this example – there are two individuals who have a contract of which they have a dispute. The dispute is resolved by compromise in a manner which is satisfactory to both. We can say that the contract was resolved in a fair manner exhibiting fairness to both parties. In the second instance one party/individual is favored over the other in the settlement leaving one dissatisfied. In this second instance a principle of law, policy or procedure was applied to resolve the issue in a just manner.
Justice comes when an application of morals, policy, procedure, law or other is applied to the resolution while fairness arises when things are resolved in a manner in which we emotional satisfied.
In this week’s gospel we might all agree to some extent that the treatment doesn't seem between the ‘early in’ and ‘late arrivals’. After all they both came, delivered their best, did what was expected in the manner expected and were paid for their services as the landowner had agreed. Yet there is the feeling of unfairness – one must ask why – because the early in workers labored longer. Remember they agreed to the daily wage for the day. The landowner acted properly paying wages not based on time of labor but as agreed.
This parable makes me think of those folks – maybe a family member, friend or person in the pew next to you who were not born into Catholicism but at some time in their life discerned and were part of a program of formation which took them to their election and acceptance into full communion in the Catholic Church. Such individuals are in our very midst.
This Easter vigil those newly accepted neophytes will be, without any limitation or inequity, ‘fully’ catholic just like many of us born into Catholicism. Those newly accepted neophytes will not labor/be challenged by sin ‘as long’ through their lives as we all striving for the eternal kingdom. Are they not entitled to the same benefits as we who were born into Catholicism and worked so many years? Some may say not fair but nevertheless the reward is just.
So fair and just make me stop and think before I speak.
Cheryl McGuinness learned this secret of mercy at the foot of a strange and terrible cross. She is the widow of the co-pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, which was hijacked and smashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. That morning, she and her two teenage children cried and suffered at the horrible loss of Tom, her husband. In the midst of her tears, she remembered something that her husband, knowing that a pilot's job is risky, had told her long before: "If anything ever happens to me, you have to trust God. God will get you through it…” She took that to heart, but it wasn't easy. A turning point in the process came almost a year after the attack, when she went to Ground Zero to participate in the Victim Compensation Fund. When she arrived to Ground Zero, emotionally stunned, she looked into the pit where the buildings had once stood. As she looked at the remains, her eyes fixed on the only steel structure left standing. It was in the shape of a cross. She kept looking from the pit to the cross and her eyes focused on the cross. She prayed in the silence of her heart, "Lord, they killed my husband." Then she seemed to see herself at the foot of Cross, Christ's cross, on Calvary. She heard God in her heart, inviting her to forgive the terrorists who had committed this atrocity. She asked Him why, and the answer that came into her soul was: "Because I forgave you." It was a moment of grace and of spiritual clarity for Cheryl, in which she saw that although she had never committed horrible acts of terrorism, she had indeed committed sins - she had done evil. And Jesus had forgiven her. It was that she felt the inner strength she hadn't felt before, the strength to forgive her husband's murderers, `and it changed the direction of her life. God doesn't ask us to forgive on our own, but He gives us the strength to forgive by: that's the secret to learning Christian mercy.
[Information for this Illustration was garnered from