The Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I’ve often heard stories of those who grew up in the great depression.  Many years later, they still had deeply engrained in them the scrupulous care for everything they have that was etched into their very being during that horrible time in our history.  They spent a lifetime wasting nothing, even hoarding things.  They would eat leftovers well past their freshness dates.  It was just their response to having nothing, completely understandable.

And that’s the lens through which I think we need to see this week’s Gospel parable.  Here Jesus presents the often quoted story of a rich man entrusting his slaves with a great deal of wealth before he sets off on a long journey.  The word “talents” here does not mean what we mean when we use that word: here we are not talking about gifts or abilities, but rather money, and a large sum of money at that.  Scholars suggest that a talent was equal to something like one thousand days’ wages, or what a poor person could have lived on for fifteen or twenty years.  So think about it, even the servant who only received one talent actually received quite a bit – he received what the average person would earn in a little over three years!  That’s a lot of money for anyone.

So who is it, then, that is receiving such a magnanimous gift?  On first glance, seeing what it is they have been given, we might think these are senior advisers to the master, people who would have been in charge of his estate and his business transactions.  But that’s not what it says.  It says he called in his “servants” – so we are talking here about slaves, slaves – not business advisers.  And so these slaves are getting ten talents, five talents, and one talent – all of them are getting a considerable amount of money!

And we know the story.  Two of them take what they have and very successfully invest it and when the master returns, are able to hand over the original sum with one hundred per cent interest.  Very impressive!  But the slave who received just a “little” (even though it was certainly still a lot of money), out of fear buries it in the ground and gives it back to the master untouched, with nothing to show for it.  It’s much like a person having gone through something like the great depression placing money under a mattress rather than trust the banks, which they saw fail miserably in their lifetimes.

It’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s see where we can go.  We’ve established that the gift they are receiving – even the slave who received little – is worth an incredible amount of money, especially to a slave who would never have the opportunity to see such wealth if not for the trust the master has placed in them.  So let’s be clear that this parable is not about us using our gifts properly; it’s about we slaves receiving something very great, some inestimable wealth.  What could that possibly be?  Well, of course, it’s God’s love, grace, and favor, which is undeservedly ours and given to us without merit.

So just for background, this is yet another indictment of the Pharisees and religious establishment of the time.  They were the ones who, because Christ was not yet present in the world, received just one talent.  But it was still a huge sum of grace!  Yet, their practice was to protect it so scrupulously by attending to the minutiae of the 613 laws of the Torah, that they missed the opportunity to really invest God’s love in the world and grow the faith to full stature.

So we can’t be like that.  We can’t have the faith taken away from us and be tossed out to wail and grind our teeth.  We have to take the faith we’ve been given, the grace we have received in baptism, and invest it mightily in the world, without fear, so that everyone will come to know the Lord and we would all go on to be put in charge of greater things, in the kingdom of heaven.  That is our vocation in the world, brothers and sisters in Christ.  We have to get that right.  We can’t cower in fear, or think our faith is too little, or we don’t know enough.  That was the cardinal sin for Matthew in his Gospel.  We have to be bold disciples and make sure that Christ is known everywhere we go, everywhere life takes us.  That is the only acceptable response to God’s love.

[[ Today we welcome our candidates for full Communion with the Church.  They have all been baptized in other Christian communities, and have come to us to become Catholic.  They have already been meeting with our RCIA program to grow in their knowledge of the faith and experience of God’s presence in their lives.  Welcoming them today, we have marked them with the sign of the Cross, helping them to remember the treasure of grace and love that God has already entrusted to them in baptism.  As we invest our faith in them today, we have hope that they will do the same for others, so that many more believers may be found for the kingdom of God.]]

We have come to the second-to-last Sunday of the Church year.  Next week, we will celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe, and then look forward to a new year as we begin the season of Advent.  And so it is important that we take today’s Gospel parable seriously.  We need to spend some time reflecting on how well we have invested God’s grace and love in the world around us.  Have we been good examples to our family and others?  Have we been people of integrity in our workplaces, schools and community?  Have we served those who are in need out of love for Christ?  Have we been zealous to grow in our spiritual lives?  Have we taken time to root sin out of our life, and to receive the grace of forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance?  Have we been unafraid to witness to our faith in every situation?

If we can’t answer all these questions affirmatively, we have some new-Church-year’s resolutions to make.  Because, and I can’t stress this strongly enough, brothers and sisters, the alternative is wailing and grinding of teeth.  And forever is a long time to be doing that!  No; God forbid.  Our desire is to hear those wonderful words from our Lord one day: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities.  Come, share your master’s joy.”

Tuesday of the Thirty-second Week in Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

‘We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.’

Those words are the epitome of humility.  They recognize that our life and our calling are at the service of our God, who gives us everything we have and everything we are.  And so when we do something wonderful, it’s because God has given us the ability to be wonderful.  When we say the right things to someone who needs to hear wisdom or compassion or even rebuke or challenge, it’s because those words come from God.  When we are in the right place at the right time to be able to be present to someone who needs a friend or a parent or a teacher or a coach, it’s because God is asking us to be his presence to that person.  We are just doing what we are obliged to do.

But it’s not like there isn’t reward for being the unprofitable servant.  If we are servants without agenda, serving in humility and gratitude, we have hope of the promise of eternity.  The wisdom writer in our first reading says:

But the souls of the just are in the hand of God,
a
nd no torment shall touch them.

And being servants in God’s hands is the best place we can be – no torment can reach us there.  But if we refuse to serve, or if we insist on having all the profit credited to us, then we are outside the hand of God, and God forbid what awaits us there.  Serving our God in humility is indeed the task of all our lives; it is what gets us to the reward of being united with God for eternity.

When we embrace the reality of service with humility, we can sing with the Psalmist today and every day, “I will bless the Lord at all times!”

The Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So here’s one of those occasions when we have what seems to be a pretty odd parable in the Gospel reading.  It’s a story that challenges our notion of who Jesus is and what he was about – it almost seems in this story that he’s being “un-Jesus-like” or even unchristian in the story.  But bookmark that for a second.  I always maintain that when a Scripture gets us riled up, then God is trying to tell us something important, and I definitely thing that’s what’s going on here.

So, first, we have to understand the parable. Wedding customs in first century Palestine were a little different than those we know today.  The wedding was a rather drawn-out affair, beginning with the betrothal.  After that, the couple was basically married, but would not live together until the complex negotiations regarding the dowry were complete.  When that was done, the bridegroom would go to the bride’s house and bring her to his own house.  Then there would be a splendid feast that would go on for several days, complete with feasting and flowing wine and all the rest.

So the parable we have in today’s Gospel puts us in the moment of time just as the negotiations are complete and they are expecting the bridegroom to go to the bride’s house.   The virgins are there ready to begin the great feast, but the bridegroom is delayed a bit, and they all fall asleep.  However, that is not the problem.  The problem is that half of them were unprepared.

And here I think is the point that gets us riled up a bit.  I think we bristle at the whole notion of the wise virgins’ refusal to share their oil with the foolish.  Jesus was always for sharing and charity, so what’s the deal here?  Well, since we know Jesus regularly encourages such sharing, I think we can safely conclude that is not the point of the parable and move on.  The point of the parable then, may well be the oil itself.  What kind of oil is he really talking about?  Of what is this oil symbolic?

The Church Fathers help us a bit there.  They talk about the oil as the oil of salvation.  This would be an oil that can only be had in relationship with Jesus.  It’s an oil that can’t be begged, borrowed, stolen or bought at an all-night Walgreens.  We fill the flasks of our lives with that oil through daily prayer, devotion, the sacraments, and a life-long relationship with Jesus Christ, our Savior.  So the foolish virgins were looking for oil too late — too late not just because it is midnight, but too late because they should have been filling their flasks with this oil all along.  It’s not the wise virgins’ fault they did not share: indeed this is an oil that cannot be shared, any more than one could live another’s life for that person.

What astounds me is that five of these virgins showed up unprepared.  We may not be familiar with first-century Palestinian wedding customs, but they certainly were.  So they would have known the wedding would go on for some days.  How is it, then, that they forgot to bring extra oil?  Even if the bridegroom had not been delayed, they certainly would have needed it!  What was so important to them that they forgot to attend to the most basic part of their job in preparation for the wedding banquet?

Just so, we certainly have nothing more important to do than to show up at the wedding feast of heaven with our flasks filled with the oil of salvation.  No other concern should distract us for our most basic job on earth, which is preparing for our life in heaven.  We must not be deterred from prayer, devotion, good works of charity, fasting, and zealous reception of the sacraments lest we hear those awful words the bridegroom spoke to the foolish virgins: “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”

When we get to the feast, if our flasks are not full, it is already too late.  As we approach the immanent end of this Church year (there’s just less than three weeks left), this is a very good time to take a look back and see how well we have filled our flasks in the last year.  Have we been zealous to attend to our spiritual lives?  Have we been careful to be sure we have received the Sacrament of Penance on a regular basis?  Do we take time to reflect on our relationship with God and try our best to live our lives as we have been called?  Have we even thought about what our calling is at this stage of our lives?  Are we, at this point in life’s journey, walking with our Lord through good times and bad?  Or have we veered off the path, in search of inferior oil with which to fill our flasks?  Have we been content with oil that does not burn brightly and which runs out just when we need it?

If that’s where we have found ourselves this year, then we have some work to do in the coming weeks.  As we wind up this year and begin the next, we need to steadfastly resolve to fill our flasks to overflowing with the oil of salvation in the year ahead.  The only way we can do that is by zealously seeking our God, praying the prayer of the Psalmist:

O God, you are my God whom I seek;
for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts
like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.

Pope Saint Leo the Great

Today’s readings

Pope Saint Leo the Great was known to be a wonderful administrator of the Church.  But far from being caught up in purely administrative matters, he was also a very spiritual and prayerful man, many of whose great writings have become part of the lifeblood of our Church.  He was elected to the papacy in the year 440, and he set the tone as a pope who believed in the pontiff’s total responsibility for the flock he led.

His work included extensive defense of the church against the heresies of Pelagianism and Manichaeism and others, he played the role of peacemaker, defending Rome against attacks by the Barbarians, and very significantly helped to settle a controversy in the Church of the east on the two natures of Christ.  His work on that issue was promulgated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Leo was well versed in Scripture and ecclesiastical awareness, and he also had the ability to reach the everyday needs and interests of his people.  We have many of his writings to this day, and some are used in the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours.  Some of his prayers also exist today in the Roman Missal.

Saint Leo held that holiness consisted in doing the work we were called upon to do in our station in life, but not so much that it costs us our relationship with Christ.  Prayer and spiritual growth are also required of the disciple, and holiness consists of doing both work and prayer in proper balance.  Following that way, we too can say that we have done what we were obliged to do, and trust that God will be pleased with our efforts and bless our lives.

Today’s Gospel sees the steward getting his act together for the next stage of his life.  Knowing he was about to be dismissed, he made agreements with others to make sure that he would have a soft landing.  As we ourselves near the end of the Liturgical year, we too should, according to the example of Saint Leo, examine our work and our relationship with Christ, and set them in proper order if they are not aligned.

Monday of the Thirty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

A story is told about the third-century martyr Saint Lawrence that, after the death of Pope Sixtus II, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence, who was the keeper of the material goods of the Church, turn over to him all of the Church’s treasures.  In response, Saint Lawrence brought out the poor, the blind and the lame, to whom he had distributed alms, saying, “Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church’s crown.”  That act cost Lawrence his life, but it also testified to the real truth of where our treasure is found.

In today’s Gospel, our Lord instructs those dining at the home of one of the leading Pharisees to do much the same.  Rather than inviting those who would give you a boost in social status or cause you to have the opportunity for repayment, instead they should “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” expecting blessing because of their inability to repay the favor.

As we near the end of our liturgical year, the Church gives us this reading to help us to reflect on our discipleship over the last year.  What has been our response to the Gospel?  Have we sought our own honor and glory, or have we instead turned to have compassion on others?  Have we treated people as stepping stones to something better, or have we humbled ourselves?

Friends, Jesus makes it clear that we cannot receive the blessing God wants to give us if we aren’t humble enough to let go of social status and wealth and the high estimation of others.  We cannot receive blessing when we are grasping for things that look better.   So if toward the end of this year, we have not grown in blessing, maybe it’s time we took stock of what we need to get rid of.  Empty hands can receive blessing.

All Souls Remembrance Mass

The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.

Each year, the Church gives us the grace of remembering, and praying for, all of our loved ones who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, and all the dead whose faith is known to God alone.  The Church is great in wisdom in giving us this feast every year.  Because even though on this day, we might shed a few tears, still we will have the grace of remembering the ones who have given us life, given us wisdom, those who have been Christ to us, those who have made God’s love tangibly present in our lives.

Perhaps the deepest mystery of the human experience lies in the reality of life and death.  Everyone has, or will, experience the death of loved ones, sometimes after a long life, sometimes far too soon, always with feelings of sadness, regret, pain, grief and perhaps even anger or confusion.

That’s how grief works.  It might seem sometimes like it would have been better to live without love, but we know deep down that that’s not true.  Sadness and even death are temporary; love is eternal.  As the Church’s vigil for the deceased tells us, “all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.”  We know that death only separates us for a short time, and even though there is that hole in our heart, the sadness that we feel is way better than never having loved at all, never having had our loved ones in our lives at all.

I want to pause here and speak a little about the reality of grief.  Because, if there is one thing that we as a society do extremely poorly these days, it’s grieving.  We rush through it and hope it’s all done before we have a chance to feel any kind of pain.  That’s part and parcel of how things work in our world; we have a pill for every malady and a quick remedy for every pain, plagued with a whole host of horrifying side effects.  And what’s important to know is that this is not how the Church teaches us to grieve.  One of the most important reasons that we have All Souls Day each year is to give us the experience of remembering and grieving and healing.  If you truly love, you will truly grieve, and not turn away from it.

The Church’s Catechism (989) teaches us: “We firmly believe, and hence we hope that, just as Christ is truly risen from the dead and lives for ever, so after death the righteous will live for ever with the risen Christ and he will raise them up on the last day.”  And so we Christians never grieve as if we have no hope.  The Church’s Liturgy echoes this hope in the third Eucharistic Prayer: “There we hope to enjoy for ever the fullness of your glory, when you will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  For seeing you, our God, as you are, we shall be like you for all the ages and praise you without end, through Christ our Lord, through whom you bestow on the world all that is good.”  One of the Prefaces to the Eucharistic Prayers for the Dead makes it very clear that this hope touches our experience of grieving: “In him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned, that those saddened by the certainty of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come (Preface I for the Dead).”

And so I have some tips on grieving that I hope you will find helpful:

  1. Don’t rush into the funeral. It’s hard to make all those difficult decisions at a moment’s notice.  It’s great if you’ve talked about your wishes with your family, because it makes things easier.  But if that hasn’t happened, the family would do well to take its time and avail itself of the resources of the funeral director and the church staff so that a funeral that adequately honors the deceased and comforts the living can be prepared.
  2. Parents: please talk to your children about your funeral. Yes, that’s going to be a hard conversation.  But these days, too many young people are so disconnected from the Church and so averse to any kind of unhappiness, that they really don’t know how to grieve.  You have to help them with that.
  3. Let other people help you. Even if you can do all the preparations, you don’t have to.  Let the Church and others help you and minister to you in your time of grief.  As a priest, I presided at my father’s funeral, but one of the priests who knew him preached the homily.  I found that was very helpful to me in my own grieving.  On that day, I was a son grieving the death of his father; it would have been hard to be the preacher too.
  4. Have a wake. A lot of people try to short-cut this one because they think it will be too painful.  It will hurt a little, yes, but the comfort of others expressing their love for the deceased and for you will do so much to heal you in the time to come.
  5. Don’t be afraid to shed tears. Anyone who has ever seen me preach at some funerals of people I’ve known especially well has seen me get choked up.  Or they have seen me shed a tear when I’ve talked about my father or my grandparents in a homily.  Tears heal us, and it’s good for other people, especially your children, to see you cry.  They need to know that pain and sorrow are part of life so that they don’t feel like they’ve gone nuts when it happens to them.  You aren’t doing anyone any favors by not allowing them to see you grieve.
  6. Understand that grief doesn’t “go away.” Feelings soften with time, yes, but you will grieve your loved ones for many years to come, perhaps your whole life long.  I still grieve for my grandparents who have been gone from my life for many, many years now.  Sometimes those waves of grief will come up all of a sudden, without warning, kind of out of the blue.  And that’s okay.  Remember grief is a sign that we have loved, and loving is the most important thing we will ever do.

One of my most vivid childhood memories was when I was just about nine years old.  My grandfather on my mother’s side, who had retired just a few months earlier, was diagnosed with cancer.  There wasn’t so much that could be done about cancer in those days, so he wasn’t expected to live long.  And so one night, as the oldest of the children, Mom and Dad came to my room to talk to me about Grandpa.  That was the night I learned about life and death, sadness and grief, love and pain.  We cried a bunch, hugged a lot, and talked about how we were going to miss him.

I went to the wake and funeral with my family, because that’s what we did when a loved one died.  My parents could have shielded me from that experience in many ways, as so many parents do, but they chose not to, and I’m glad they made that decision.  Death and grief aren’t things we actively seek, but we can’t be afraid to meet them head on, girded with faith, and confident of the hope we have in Christ Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, I can’t say this strongly enough: if we don’t learn to grieve, as early as possible, we will never ever truly love.  We won’t want to invest ourselves in love because we won’t want to ever feel pain.  Jesus so deeply invested himself in love that he suffered the pain of the cross for us, so as to open for us the way to resurrection.  We have to be willing to suffer loss in order to gain anything truly glorious.

Even if the memories aren’t the best, and even if we struggle with the pain of past hurts mixed with the sorrow of grief, there is grace in grieving and remembering.  Maybe this day can be an occasion of healing, even if it’s just a little bit.  Maybe our tears, mixed with the saving Blood of Christ, can wash and purify our wounded hearts and sorrowful souls.  And certainly our prayers are heard by our God who gives us healing and brings our loved ones closer to him, purifying them of any stain of sin gathered along the journey of life.

That pain that perhaps we feel won’t all go away today.  We are left with tears and loneliness, and that empty place at the table, and that hole in our heart.  But sadness and pain absolutely do not last forever, because death and sin have been ultimately defeated by the Blood of Christ.  We can hope in the day that our hearts will be healed, and we will be reunited with our loved ones forever, with all of our hurts healed and relationships purified, in the kingdom that knows no end.

Eternal rest grant unto all of our departed loved ones, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

The Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

We know about, or at least have heard about the deadly sins.  These are those sins that drag us down into further sin, and really work to cut us off from the relationship with Christ that we hold dear.  So we remember that these sins are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.  But for each of these deadly sins, there is also a life-giving virtue.  Today, our readings focus on humility, which is the life-giving virtue that is the antidote to pride.  Of the seven deadly sins, pride is usually considered the original and the most serious of the sins. Pride is a particularly ugly thing.

Jesus tells us quite clearly today: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  But not many of us really seek to be humbled, do we?  When we think about humility, we might associate that with a kind of “wimpiness.”  As you think about humble people do you imagine breast-beating, pious souls who allow themselves to be the doormats for the more aggressive and ambitious? Humble people, we tend to think, don’t buck the system, they just say their prayers and, when they are inflicted with pain and suffering, they just “offer it up.”

But that’s not how Jesus sees it.  He doesn’t see humble people as wimpy or weak-minded.  He sees them as leaders: “The greatest among you,” he tells us, “must be your servant.”  So do you want to be a leader?  Do you want people to look up to you?  Do you want to be a role model for your children?  Well, if you do, you need to be a servant of others.

When I think about humility, I often think about a man named Mike, who was a member of my home parish.  Mike was one of my favorite people in the world.  He owned the service station where my family had, and still has, our cars repaired and maintained ever since we first moved out to the suburbs, over forty years ago now.  Dad used to joke that with all the cars we brought in there over the years, we probably had ownership in at least the driveway by now.  But Mike never took advantage of anybody; Mike was the kind of guy who, if you brought your car in for a tune-up, would call you and say, “your car doesn’t really need a tune-up yet, so I’ll just change the oil and a couple of the spark plugs and you’ll be fine.”  He was honest and did great work, and it seemed like everyone knew him.  He taught that to a kid who came to work for him when he was just sixteen.  When Mike retired, Ted took over for him and runs the business just the way Mike taught him.

Mike was a regular at the 7am Mass on Sunday, and after his retirement was a pretty regular daily Mass-goer.  The church would sometimes ask him to help a person in need with car repairs.  This he did gladly; he was always ready to serve.  Several years ago, when Mike died, I took Mom to his wake.  It took us an hour and a half to get in to see him and his family, and it was like that all night long.  His funeral packed the parish church, and eight of us priests concelebrated the Mass.  Mike left his mark on our community in incredible ways, and nobody ever forgot it.  Mike was the kind of servant leader that Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel.

The attitude of humility is counter-cultural.  We want the places of honor at banquets and wherever we go; that’s just human nature.  We may not wear phylacteries or tassels when we come in to worship, but we are pleased when someone notices how wonderful is something that we have done.  And Jesus would have nothing of all this.

I don’t really think that Jesus was saying there shouldn’t be people we call “father” or “teacher” or “master.”  Sometimes non-Catholics will cite this passage to dismiss the value of the Priesthood.  But they are taking one verse out of context and miss the point: Jesus knew well that the world needs leaders.  But the message here is that those leaders must be the servants of all.  They shouldn’t be in the position to have the titles of honor.  Rather the title should recognize the servant leadership that is the heart of who they are.  It’s something I pray to get better at every day; maybe you do too.  And so we need to reflect on how willing we have been to be servants.  Have we reached out to the poor in some way?  Have we given adequately of our time, talent and treasure for the mission of the Church?  Do we carry out our roles in our family, job, or community with love and compassion and humility?

We can see how Jesus modeled leadership in his own life.  Indeed, he is not asking us to do something he was unwilling to do himself.  When he said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” he was clearly foreshadowing what would happen to him.  Humbling himself to take up our cross – our cross – he would be exalted in the glory of the resurrection.

The good news is that glory can be ours too, if we would humble ourselves and lay down our lives for others.  If we stop treating the people in our lives as stepping stones to something better, we might reach something better than we can find on our own.  If we humble ourselves to feed the poor and needy, to reach out to the marginalized and forgotten, we might be more open to the grace our Lord has in store for us in the kingdom of heaven.

At this Mass, we have been invited to a very important banquet, and we ourselves are completely unworthy of being here.  And I include myself in that statement, brothers and sisters.  Yet, through grace, through the love of our God, we have been given an exalted place at the banquet table.  Realizing how great the gift is and how unworthy of it we are is a very humbling experience.  In that humility, we are called to go out and feed those who need to know how much God loves them.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.