The Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time [Cycle B]

Today’s readings

Have you ever been with a friend who is hurting and after listening to them, said something that helped them, but you don’t know where those words came from?  Have you ever been in a situation where everyone was doing the wrong thing, and you were able to stand up for what was right with a strength you never knew you had?

When we think about prophets and prophecy, I think our minds always take us to ancient days.  All the prophets we can think of lived many centuries ago: Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos and all the rest, right up to John the Baptist who was the last of the prophets of old and the beginning of the prophecy of the new kingdom.  All of it culminating in the person of Jesus Christ, whose prophecy was the voice of God himself.  But I think our readings today call us to look at prophecy in a new light, and to be open to the fact that there are many more prophets than we can think of right away, prophets that are a bit more contemporary than Moses and Elijah and all the others.

For Moses, prophecy was a huge task.  He bore the responsibility of bringing God’s message of salvation to a people who had become used to living without it.  He was to inaugurate the covenant between God and a people who had largely forgotten about God, or certainly thought God had forgotten about them.  His prophetic burden was great, but God offered to take some of his prophetic spirit and bestow it on the seventy elders.  So seventy were chosen, a list was drawn up, and a ceremony was prepared.

Two of their number – Eldad and Medad – were missing from the group during the ceremony, but the spirit was given to them anyway.  God obviously had drawn up the list.  But this had Joshua all bent out of shape.  How could they be prophesying when they had not taken part in the ritual?  So he complains about it to Moses, who clearly does not share his concern.  He accuses Joshua of jealousy and says to him, “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!  Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”

Moses’ vision for the ministry was bigger than himself, bigger than Joshua, bigger than even the chosen seventy.  And he makes a good point here.  What if every one of God’s people knew God well enough to prophesy in God’s name?  What if all of us who claim to follow God could speak out for God’s concern for the needy, the marginalized and the dispossessed?  The world would certainly be a much different place.  Joshua’s concern was that the rules be followed.  Moses’ concern was that God’s work be done.

And so there’s a rather obvious parallel in the first part of today’s Gospel.  This time it’s John who is all bent out of shape.  Someone was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and even worse, whoever it was was apparently successful!  Jesus, of course, does not share John’s concern.  Jesus’ vision of salvation was bigger than John’s.  If demons are being cast out in Jesus’ name, what does it matter who is doing it?  If people are being healed from the grasp of the evil one and brought back to the family of God, well then, praise God!  Jesus even goes so far as to say that if people are bringing others back to God, which is the fundamental mission of Jesus in the first place, then they really are members of the group.  Anyone who is not against us is for us.  Anyone who heals a person in God’s name is accomplishing the mission, so praise God!

I think the point here that we need to get is that true prophecy doesn’t always fit into a neat little box.  During the rite of baptism, the person who has just been baptized is anointed with the sacred Chrism oil – the oil that anoints us in the image of Jesus as priest, prophet and king.  It is part of our baptismal calling for all of the people of the Lord to be prophets.  And so we really ought to be hearing the word of the Lord all the time, from every person in our lives.  God gives us all people who are prophetic witnesses to us: people who say and live what they believe.  They might be our parents or our children, the colleague at work, the person who sits next to us in math class, or even the neighbor who seems to always want to talk our ear off.  At the basic level, one of the most important questions that arises in today’s Liturgy of the Word is, who are the prophets among us?  Who is it in our lives that has been so gifted with the spirit that they challenge us to be better people and live better lives?

But as much as we have those kind of prophetic voices in our lives, there are also the other voices.  These are the voices of our culture that drag us down to the depths of brokenness, debauchery and despair.  That, I think is what Jesus meant by all that drastic surgery he talked about at the end of the Gospel reading today.

I don’t think any of us needs to chop off a hand, but instead chop off some of the things those hands do.  Maybe it’s a business deal that is not worthy of our vocation as Christians.  Or it could be a sinful activity that we need to abandon.  We probably shouldn’t lop off a foot.  But we may indeed need to cut out of our lives some of the places those feet take us.  Whether they’re actual places or situations that provide occasions for sin, they must go.  I’m not suggesting that you gouge out an eye.  But maybe cut out some of the things that those eyes see.  Whether it’s places on the internet we ought not go, or television shows or movies that we should not see, we need to turn away from those voices.  Some people may find that they need to get rid of the computer or television, or put them in a more public spot, or find an activity that takes them away from those things.  It may be hard to do without them, but better that than being so wrapped up in ourselves that we forget about God.  Better to live without these things than to be forever without God.

Prophecy is a huge responsibility.  Being open to that prophecy is a challenge to humility.  We might be the prophets, or we might be the ones hearing the prophets, but in either case we have work to do.  Prophets need to be faithful to God’s spirit, and hearers need to be open to the word and ready to act on it.  Prophecy nearly always calls us to a radical change.  May God help us to recognize the prophets among us, and make us ready to hear the word of the Lord.

Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!  Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!

Monday of the Twenty-fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today we begin a little excursion into the Wisdom Literature of the Scriptures.  The first readings this week will be from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, two of the strongest pieces of Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament.

Wisdom literature in general was intended to praise God and heroic virtue.  For the Jews, the source of this wisdom was from God himself. Wisdom literature in general used several distinctive forms, such as the proverb, the riddle and fables.  But in Hebrew, it is mostly the proverb that is common.  The proverb could distill the wisdom of the ages into a practical, memorable, pithy line or two that had a bit of sermon in it as well.  The proverbs had to be memorable because it was by memory that most of them were handed down across the generations and perpetuated in the society.

Today’s bit of wisdom is one that finds its praise in justice.  That justice consisted of concern for the needy among us.  “Say not to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again,
tomorrow I will give,’ when you can give at once,” we are told.  We are exhorted to keep peaceful lives, finding our path not in lawlessness but in uprightness and truth.

The Gospel reading gives us some of Jesus’ own wisdom.  That truth will eventually win out and all that is hidden will be revealed.  Nothing will be hidden but instead will be revealed in the light of God’s kingdom as a lamp on a lampstand.

So today finds us to be wisdom-seekers.  As we begin our study of the Wisdom Literature this week, we may indeed find that God is pointing out a path to us, one that perhaps we had not seen before.  May we all be open to follow that path to justice, knowing, as the Psalmist tells us, “The just one shall live on your holy mountain, O Lord.”

The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time [Cycle B]

Today’s Readings

So the problem is, nobody ever becomes rich and famous by being righteous.  How many people even care about the idea of being righteous?  The world is so often full of jealousy and selfish ambition.  Indeed, we commend people who make amazing business deals (for themselves, anyway), who get ahead (regardless of the cost), who get rich quick (even if it means stepping on people all along the way).  These people are strong, self-assured, ambitious, and clever.  Sometimes they are even entertaining.  But would we ever call them righteous?  Maybe sometimes, but not very often, I think.

So our idea of who is a person worthy of our admiration needs to change a bit, I think.  Jesus puts it very plainly in today’s Gospel: “If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”  That, after all, was the way that he lived his life, and the way that he expected his disciples to live as well.  This is the Jesus who said goodbye to his disciples by feeding them with his own body and blood and washing their feet.  He is the one who cured the sick and preached the word no matter what day it was, Sabbath or not.

Saint James in the second reading urges us all to be truly wise, not covetous and envious and full of hate.  He urges us toward the wisdom of the righteous one, the one who has the wisdom from above, who is “first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.”

The problem is, though, that the righteous one doesn’t always live a stress-free life.  Nice guys, as the proverb goes, tend to finish last.  And so, as our first reading tells us, the just one is often seen as an obnoxious irritant to those who do not see with wisdom from above.  And so they set out to knock the just one down a peg or two: “With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test,” they say, “that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience.”

Jesus knows that just this kind of treatment is in store for him, and he discusses it with the Twelve as they walk along, out of the way of the crowds, so that he might better teach them what is to come. “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”  But the Twelve, as usual, miss the point.  And rather than ask the Teacher what he means, instead they engage in a frivolous argument about who among them is the greatest.

Jesus corrects them, and says that the way a person becomes first among us is that he or she gives everything, empties himself, becomes the last of all and the servant of all.  This is a spiritual principle called kenosis or “self-emptying” that calls the Christian disciple to go deep into himself or herself and to give up all of the back-biting, ambitious attitudes that come so naturally to us fallen people, and instead give everything they have and are for others.  This is righteousness, and it comes at a great cost.  This is our calling as followers of the Lord.

We have to realize that our salvation will only come about by pouring out our lives for our brothers and sisters.  We may think we can become number one by looking out for number one only.  We may think we can get ahead by tending to our own interests first and foremost.  But Jesus tells us today that quite the opposite is true.  To become number one, to really get ahead, we must serve all of our brothers and sisters.  We must lay down our lives in every way possible and raise up others whenever we see them down.  Getting this right, becoming truly righteous, will involve us tending to the needs of others first and foremost, knowing that God will take care of the just one.

Monday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This whole Gospel story can be a little bit jarring, I think.  I was particularly struck by what the messenger said to Jesus when he asked him to come to the centurion’s house: “He deserves to have you do this for him.”  Yeah, right, as if any of us is ever worthy of God’s mercy!  To his credit, the centurion must have heard of this, because he hurries to Jesus to set things right: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.  Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.”  And what he says also explains why he sent a messenger to come to Jesus instead of coming himself.  For his part, Jesus is impressed with the man’s faith: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he says.  And so the healing of the man’s slave takes place at once.  It’s an interesting exchange, to be sure.

We have the privilege, every time we gather for the Eucharist, to echo the centurion’s faith.  The new revision of the Mass has us say, just before we come to the Altar for Holy Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  And saying those words out loud is so important at that moment in the Mass.  Unless we truly believe that Christ’s Body and Blood are sufficient for the healing of our souls, unless we truly know that we are completely unworthy of God’s mercy, then we don’t have the faith necessary to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.

But when we do enter into that moment of Communion with hearts open in faith, everything changes for us.  True healing can come about, and we can return to our daily lives and find our souls healed with the grace that prepares them for whatever this world brings them.

The Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time [Cycle B]

Today’s readings

One of my favorite things to do when I have spare time is to read a good mystery novel.  My mother passed her love for that genre on to me, and to my sisters.  I always used to love Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, and I’ve read and re-read my favorites from them many times.  I also love to see mysteries played out in movies and on television, and some of my favorite shows are dramas along those lines.  The thing that I’ve learned about mysteries as a genre is that the best of them are the stories that keep you guessing; they aren’t solved all in the first six pages.

During these Ordinary Time Sundays of the year, the Church presents two main topics for our edification and our growth in faith.  One of those topics is instruction in discipleship; how do we live as disciples and what does it look like?  We’ve been hearing that throughout the summer.  The other topic is what we are seeing today: and that is instruction in who Jesus is.  And this is where the mystery begins to play out.  Just when the disciples (and, truthfully, we ourselves) think they have Jesus all figured out, it turns out they don’t really get it at all.  Jesus is like an onion in some ways, every new clue just peels away one layer, and there is always more there to be discovered.

In the first reading, the figure speaking is commonly referred to as “the Suffering Servant,” a figure that is later identified with Jesus.  Whoever the figure is, he or she has incredible faith.  One might expect that faith to be rewarded, but it’s not.  Instead, his back is beaten, his beard is plucked, and his face is buffeted and spat upon.  Yet, he continues to have faith, setting his face, knowing that he will not be put to shame.  Maybe you have met a person who has gone through incredible trials like unemployment, family strife, or serious illness, and has remained faithful.  If you know a person like that, perhaps you have sensed a bit of Jesus working in that person.

In the second reading, St. James tells us that our faith must be living, or it is not faith at all.  He has seen far too many people who will say nice things to people and claim to have faith, but refuse to help alleviate anyone’s real needs.  “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well” are nice-sounding words, but are, of course, meaningless when spoken to people who have serious problems: no place to live and keep warm, and little if anything to eat.  James’s faith is one that sees the great mystery of Christ’s presence in those who are in need.  We have the same challenges today, of course.  There are many who are needy among us, and we disciples are called to a living faith that reaches out to those in need.  Perhaps you’ve had the opportunity to work at a soup kitchen or a shelter, or go on a mission trip.  If you’ve done that, maybe you have seen the face of Christ in those you’ve served.

The Gospel continues the theme of mystery by asking the question point-blank: “who do you say that I am?”  The people of Jesus’ time, the disciples included, were constantly trying to figure him out.  Peter seems to have figured out one of the clues: Jesus is the Messiah.  But he totally misses the boat on just what kind of Messiah Jesus is to be.  When Jesus talks about the necessity of his suffering and death, Peter just can’t wrap his mind around it.  Jesus’ response to Peter is that to really know who Jesus is, Peter needs to think like God, not like a human being.  The strangeness of this mystery is so great that it applies not just to Jesus, but also to anyone who would want to follow him.  Disciples like us must take up our cross: if we wish to save our lives, we must give them away.  This is a very great mystery indeed.

The real mystery to this mystery of who Jesus is, is that the more we find out about him, the more we find out about ourselves.  Because we too are called to be suffering servants: all of our good efforts won’t always be rewarded in this life.  Sometimes standing up for what is right will lead to scorn and abuse.  But we do it nonetheless, knowing that ultimately, we will never be put to shame.  And we too are called to have faith that is living, faith that reveals itself in the works we do.  We can’t claim to be people of faith if we don’t give of ourselves and extend ourselves in service.  Faith that never says yes to the call of Jesus is not faith at all.  Faith that is only evident one hour a week is not faith at all.  And finally, we are called, by the very words of our Savior, to take up our cross and follow him.  Following him will ultimately lead us to glory if we do it faithfully.  But following him will also lead us to the Cross.  Yesterday we celebrated that mystery in the feast of the Triumph of the Cross.  Yes, we will suffer in this life, yes we will die, but that death will release us to the glory of the resurrection, if we embrace it in faith.

The psalmist sums it all up for us today.  Yes, the suffering in our lives leads us to experience the cords of death that encompass us.  We often fall into distress and sorrow.  But when we embrace that suffering and call on the Lord, we will find ourselves freed of death and able to walk before the Lord in the land of the living.  We who have embraced and remembered and celebrated the mystery of Christ’s presence in our lives, in our Church and in our world, can approach suffering with great faith.  There’s a contemporary Christian song that says “sometimes he calms the storm, and other times he calms his child.”  God won’t always make our tears and pain go away.  But he does promise that we will never go through them alone.  We will probably never completely figure Christ out this side of the Kingdom.  The disciples didn’t and we won’t either.  But when we enter into the mystery, we can keep turning the pages and finding more and more clues.  When we enter the mystery, we can look forward to the great unveiling of the solution when we enter our heavenly reward.

Monday of the Twenty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So the readings that we have today are not meant to be of comfort to the afflicted; rather their intent is to afflict us who have been just a little to comfortable.  It seems that the Church at Corinth had enthusiastically accepted Paul’s preaching of the Gospel, but while the cat was away, well, you know the rest.  It seems they had become known not so much for their integrity and faithful living of the Gospel, so much as for their degenerate actions, actions that apparently would have made the pagans blush.  Paul, as the father of their community, comes down on them pretty harshly, and well does he do so, so as to save them from the fires of hell.

In the Gospel reading, we see those scribes and Pharisees once again on the lookout for anything they can use to discredit and condemn Jesus.  They know that the man’s withered hand would not be something Jesus the healer could overlook.  So Jesus asks them if it is okay to do nothing on the Sabbath and so let evil continue to reign, or would it be better to actually do some good, to actually reach out in compassion to bind up the broken and heal the sick?  One would think the call for true justice would stir somewhere in their hardened hearts, but obviously their penchant for legalism allows them to use the letter of the law to condemn the One who came to manifest the spirit of the law.

So if we feel a little uncomfortable having heard the proclamation of these readings, they we certainly have experienced them in the spirit they were offered.  The Liturgy of the Word today calls us to look at our own lives and root out everything that is contrary to the Gospel.  In the quiet places of our day today, a rather honest examination of conscience would do wonders for our lives of faith.

It is the Psalmist today who allows us to pray that we might not fall into the traps of degeneration, apathy and self-righteousness:  “Lead me to your justice, Lord.”  Lead us to your justice, indeed.  Help us to live lives of integrity that proclaim the Kingdom of God with its call to repentance.  Help us to remember that Sabbath rest is supposed to strengthen us for Gospel service.  Help us to embrace the spirit of the law by loving others as you love us.  Lead us to your justice, Lord.

Labor Day

Today’s readings:  Genesis 1:26-2:3; Psalm 90; Matthew 25:14-30

One of the things that I remember vividly about my childhood is how hard my parents worked.  My Dad worked more than one job at a time for several years.  And in his main job, he was with the company for well over forty years, finally retiring from the company he worked for since his late teens.  My mother, too, worked outside the home, and still does on a part-time basis.  They encouraged me to work as well, and the experience of the work I did in my late teens is something that I carried with me throughout my pre-seminary work years, and continue, really, to benefit from to this very day.  And that’s how work is supposed to be: participation in God’s creation, enhancing our human dignity, bringing forth our gifts, and helping us to be better people.  Work should also help us to sustain our lives and our families, and to provide for their needs, including health care and retirement.  The Church has consistently and loudly taught these truths about work ever since Pope Leo XIII’s ground-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum, published in 1891.

As we observe Labor Day this year, though, I think those principles are in jeopardy.  Our economy is a broken one, and far too many don’t have the resources that work provides.  The bishops of our nation publish a yearly Labor Day statement, and this year they write about the hard statistics our economy presents:

“Officially over 12 million workers are looking for work but cannot find a job and millions more have actually given up seeking employment.  Millions more are underemployed; they are willing and able to work full time, but there are not enough jobs available.  Over ten million families are “working poor”–they work hard, but their jobs do not pay enough to meet their basic needs.  The sad fact is that over 46 million people live in poverty and, most disturbingly, over 16 million children grow up poor in our nation.  The link between joblessness and poverty is undeniable, as Pope Benedict points out:

“’In many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work, either because work opportunities are limited (through unemployment or underemployment), or “because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family” (Caritas in Veritate, no. 63).’”

The bishops then go on to call for a more just economy, beginning with fixing the broken economy in which we find ourselves.  No easy task!  They do point out that they find a lack of concern for the poor and lack of support for workers among all political candidates right now to be ominous and disturbing.  It is then, our task to hold them accountable for that as we vote, one of many important issues that demand our attention in the upcoming election.  It is also, of course, our job to pray for that reality.  The bishops write:

This Labor Day, our country continues to struggle with a broken economy that is not producing enough decent jobs. Millions of Americans suffer from unemployment, underemployment or are living in poverty as their basic needs too often go unmet. This represents a serious economic and moral failure for our nation. As people of faith, we are called to stand with those left behind, offer our solidarity, and join forces with “the least of these” to help meet their basic needs. We seek national economic renewal that places working people and their families at the center of economic life.

This Labor Day reminds us that we don’t have permission to write off human labor as some kind of necessary evil or a commodity to be bought and sold.   We are reminded that the economy exists for the good of people, not the other way around.  We must truly venerate all labor, that of our own efforts as well as that of others. We must vigorously defend the rights and dignity of workers, particularly of the poor and marginalized. And we must always offer all of this back to our God who created us to be co-creators with him. May we pray with the Psalmist this day and every day, “Lord give success to the work of our hands!”