Monday of the Twenty-sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Satan uses all sorts of things to trip us up, and he can be seen front and center in today’s readings. In the first reading, he has this curious dialogue with God about Job, who will suffer much in the readings to come this week. Satan points out that it is no big deal that Job has remained faithful, as much as God has blessed him so far in life. He wagers when that’s all taken away, things would change in a hurry. But Job’s faithfulness is deeply-rooted, and Satan was wrong, it wasn’t just because of his blessings. Job remains faithful and does nothing disrespectful of God.

In the Gospel reading today, Satan uses envy to stir up trouble. First it’s envy of one another when the disciples waste their time trying to figure out which of them was the greatest, kind of like some kids trying to figure out which one was dad’s favorite. Even when Jesus puts that to rest, they then get envious of some people not of their group casting out demons in Jesus’ name.

What’s important is that we need to discern when Satan is working on us. We don’t want to be used as his plaything. We need to be serious about our faithfulness and say with Job, “blessed be the name of the Lord!”

The Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Devising Our Own Accompaniments

Today’s readings

The past two weekends, we have had the first reading come from the book of the prophet Amos.  I love Amos.  He doesn’t mince words, and you can usually tell what he’s getting at right away.  Today, though, I think it’s a little harder to understand what he means.  The line that jumps out at me is the line, “Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.”  It almost sounds like a good thing.  David, of course, was a wonderful musician, so why would it be a bad thing that they are able to devise their own accompaniments, like David did?

Well, let me tell you a story from my own life that might shed some light on it.  This, too, is a musical analogy.  Back when I was in my early twenties, I was taking voice lessons. I had a really good teacher who taught me all the mechanics of voice as well as some music theory. He also tried to teach me how to play piano, but that never took. But I have to admit, sometimes I took things for granted and let my practicing slide. And that’s exactly what I had been doing that for a couple of weeks at one point.  The lesson right after that went okay, but I have to admit I didn’t really learn anything because I hadn’t put anything into it. At the end of the lesson, we sat down and talked for a while. Mostly my teacher was talking and I was getting an earful. But I thought he was praising me for my abilities and progress – the words he used were very positive and I left feeling really good about myself. But afterward, while I was driving home, I started to feel the kick in the pants that the talk really was. I got the message, loud and clear.

I think that’s what Amos is doing here.  Listen to that line again: “Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.” Again, it almost sounds like a good thing, but it isn’t at all. David could devise his own accompaniment, because he was singing those Psalms with the voice of God. But if everyone in our choir devised their own accompaniment, we’d have a cacophony. So here Amos is making the point that devising their own accompaniment meant that they listened to what they wanted to hear, not what God was telling them.  They did whatever they wanted to do, because it seemed like God was blessing them.  It’s kind of like the expression, “she dances to her own music.” It’s not a compliment at all.

The rich man in today’s Gospel devised his own accompaniment too. He ignored poor Lazarus every single day of his life. He knew Lazarus’s need, and maybe he even thought he’d get around to helping Lazarus one day. Or maybe he thought, “What good can I do, I’m just one person?” Perhaps he thought, “If I give him something to eat, what good will that do, he’ll just be hungry tomorrow.” He probably came up with all kinds of excuses about why he couldn’t help Lazarus right here and right now. He was devising his own accompaniment.

And we all know the story about the rich man. Someday becomes never. It’s eventually too late: poor Lazarus dies and goes to be with Father Abraham. But in an ironic twist of fate, the rich man also dies, presumably soon after. But it seems that Lazarus and the rich man end up in different places, doesn’t it? The rich man learns that devising one’s own accompaniment does not help one to sing a hymn of praise to the Lord, and his choice in life becomes his choice in the life to come. If one doesn’t choose to praise God in life, one won’t have that option in the life to come. Devising our own accompaniment comes with drastic consequences.

Even in death, the rich man is devising his own accompaniment.  Even now, he does not see Lazarus as anything more than a messenger to do his own bidding.  “Father Abraham,” he cries out, “have pity on me.  Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.”  When he learns that’s not possible, he tries another tack:  “Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.”  He never sees Lazarus as a brother, and that’s why they’re in different places.  That’s why there is that great chasm that Father Abraham talked about between them – the rich man built it!  Devising our own accompaniment means that we separate ourselves from the community, we literally excommunicate ourselves.

One of the principles of Catholic social teaching is solidarity with the poor and needy.  This was a topic that the prophets, like Amos, preached about all the time. Solidarity with the poor is the teaching that says we need to be one with our brothers and sisters, and not ignore their presence among us. I became very aware of this as I walked around downtown Chicago one time. I had come with some money to give to the poor. But on the train ride home, I realize that I had just quickly given some of them some money, and never really looked at any of them. They were my brothers and sisters, and I didn’t take the time to look them in the eye. Solidarity calls me – calls all of us – to do just that. We have to step out of that universe that we have set in motion around us and realize that Christ is present in each person God puts in our path. We have to step out of our own cacophony where we have devised our own accompaniments and step into the symphony that God has set in motion. We have to be one with all people.

God knows about this principle of solidarity. Because God holds it so dear, he sent his only Son to take on flesh – our flesh – so that he could live in solidarity with us – all of us who are poor and needy in our sins. He shared in all of our joys and sorrows, and reaffirmed that human life was good. Life was made good at creation and remains good to this day. But if God could take on flesh in solidarity with us, then we must take on the burdens of our brothers and sisters and live in solidarity with them.  We must abandon our own accompaniments and sing the song of our brothers and sisters in need.

In our second reading today, St. Paul tells us to “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.” We have to be serious about living our faith and proclaiming the Gospel in everything that we do. In solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters, we must sing to God’s own accompaniment and join in the wonderful symphony that is the heavenly worship.

Saints Andrew Kim Tae-gŏn, Priest, and Paul Chŏng Ha-sang, and Companions, Martyrs

Today’s readings

In the 1800s, Andrew Kim became the first native Korean to become a priest when he traveled 1300 miles to seminary in China. He managed to find his way back into the country six years later. When he returned home, he arranged for more men to travel to China for studies. He was arrested, tortured and finally beheaded.

St. Paul Chong was a lay apostle who was also martyred. During the persecutions of 1839, 1846, 1866 and 1867, 103 members of the Christian community gave their lives for the faith. These included some bishops and priests, but for the most part they were lay people, including men and women, married and unmarried, children, young people and the elderly. They were all canonized by Pope Saint John Paul II during a visit to Korea in 1984.

Our gospel today reminds us that those who hear and act on God’s word are the ones who are member’s of Christ’s family. This reminds me of yesterday’s Gospel which told us to “be careful how you hear.” We have to hear the words with hearts willing to do whatever it is that God asks of us. The Korean martyrs did this at the cost of their own lives. May we be as willing to give of ourselves today as they were in that day.

Monday of the Twenty-fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I love the little line in the gospel reading that says, “Take care, then, how you hear.” It almost seems like a throw-away line, but really, I believe, it’s an essential instruction from Jesus. We disciples are to take care how we hear. Not what we hear, although that’s probably part of it, but how we hear.
So how do we hear the words of the gospel? Do we hear them as something that seems nice but doesn’t really affect us? Do those words fly over our heads or go in one ear and out the other? Do we hear them at Mass, and then live however it is we want, seeming to ignore what we’ve just heard?
Or, do we really hear the Word of the Lord? Does the gospel get into our head and our heart and stir things up? Do the words of Jesus get our blood flowing and our imaginations racing? Does hearing the gospel make us long for a better place, a more peaceful kingdom, a just society? We are not just hearing words about Jesus, we are hearing Jesus, we are experiencing the presence of God right here, right now, among us. If we open the door of our ears and our hearts, we might just find God doing something amazing in us and through us.
Take care, then, how you hear.

The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

What an odd parable we have in today’s Gospel reading! To our modern ears, this makes no sense; it’s almost as if Jesus is extolling immoral conduct. But, whenever we find a piece of scripture that bothers us, I always find that it means I should pay attention, because the Lord has something important to say. Not only that, but today’s reading comes on the heels of last week’s reading about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. In my homily last week, I mentioned that Jesus used all of these “trick question” stories to get the people’s attention. I think this week’s parable is a lot like that. So let’s dive in and figure this out together.

The steward in the parable seems to be some kind of high-ranking assistant to the rich man. He has enough authority that he is able to rewrite the deals people had made with the man, such that the rich man would have to honor them. But apparently he has not been doing his job, because he learns that the rich man is about to fire him. Much as anyone would do when they learn of that impending crisis, he takes stock of his abilities: he isn’t strong enough for manual labor, and his position has made the prospect of begging too humiliating to bear.

Given that state of affairs, he knows that he has to start cutting deals with the rich man’s clients so that they will be more likely to help him when he is looking for it after he is fired. So he basically writes off a large chunk of their debts to the rich man. Now how he could do that is anyone’s guess. Some scholars say that he just wrote of the commission he himself would have received for collecting the debt. Others say that he wrote off the usurious interest the master had been charging. Since we don’t know the answer, we have to assume that detail was either understood by Jesus’ hearers or simply unimportant to the story itself.

Now the next statement is difficult for biblical scholars to unravel: “And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” Are those words part of the parable? In other words, did the rich man call the servant dishonest, and if so, was this what was about to get the steward fired? It doesn’t seem like that is the case. The Greek word used for “master” here is kyrios, or Lord, which usually refers to Jesus in the gospels. So it seems like Jesus is the one who is calling the servant dishonest, and that serves to squash the impression that Jesus was commending the steward for his dishonest dealings; clearly that was not the case.

But having said all that and having waded our way through the strangeness of this parable, the question remains: what is the point? Certainly Jesus isn’t saying that we should deal deceitfully with others, be they poor or rich. I think what Jesus wants us to understand is that, in the vast scheme of things, there is something more important than money. For the steward on the eve of his unemployment, the money owed to his boss was far less important than his ability to live after he was let go. Perhaps all of this is summed up best by the words that come at the end of the gospel reading: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

Here’s the line that I think should really get us thinking: “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” So I think our Lord is reminding the people that they are to be children of light, and they’re not doing it very well. This Gospel parable is paired with a very strong proclamation from the prophet Amos, who never minces his words. His central message was that the worship of the people Israel was completely messed up, because they dishonored God in their daily living, in every possible way, at every possible moment. Today’s first reading is evidence enough of what Amos was sent to preach: he details the various ways the rich cheated the poor who came to buy life’s sustenance from them.  And he concludes with the very haunting words: “Never will I forget a thing they have done!”

So I think the message here is that the world around us knows well enough how to deal with dishonest wealth. We see dishonest dealings go on all the time: deals that use the poor for their labor, while the poor suffer without the basic things that we couldn’t live without. But we are children of light. We should know how to take care of the wealth that we have in an honest way so that we and all those in need can live with dignity. The children of light serve God, not mammon, which is the love of money at the expense of every other good thing.

So our reflection this week should lead us to taking stock of how we use the money we have been given to steward. Have we been careful to take care of the poor? Have we used the gifts we have for the good of others? Or have we hoarded what we have been given and denied others what is rightfully theirs? God sees all of that, and would that he would see us living as children of light.

Saint John Chrysostom

Today’s readings

Saint John Chrysostom was known to be a prolific, well-spoken and challenging preacher. The name “Chrysostom” means “golden-mouthed.” He spoke eloquently of the Scriptures, of which he had an extensive understanding, and applied their words to the times of his day. He was known, actually, to often preach for two hours or more! So, in his honor, I thought it appropriate to preach … just kidding!

The emperor schemed to make John the bishop of Constantinople, the capital city, because the he thought he could manipulate John. But he couldn’t. John would often preach against the opulence of the wealthy and the mistreatment of the poor. He deposed bishops who had bribed their way into office. He would only offer a modest meal to those who came to kiss up to the bishop, rather than an opulent table that they had been expecting. He would not accept the pomp and ceremony that afforded him a place above most ranking members of the court.

So, as you can well imagine, not everyone liked John. Many of his sermons called for concrete steps to share wealth with the poor. The rich did not appreciate hearing the challenging words that John was known to preach. When it came to justice and charity, Saint John acknowledged no double standards. I think his preaching would be intriguing, and certainly challenging, even in our own day.

What we should get from Saint John Chrysostom, is that discipleship has to be imbued with fidelity and integrity. We have to practice what we preach. As we go forth from this place, we too have the opportunity to live our faith by giving generously to the poor, and reaching out to those who are marginalized. We have to be those disciples who give lavishly of our personal resources, who forgive from the heart, who avoid judging and love all people deeply. If our living had this kind of integrity, then we could be “golden-mouthed” too, not so much by our words as by our actions.

The Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time: It’s All About Mercy

Today’s readings

Mercy. It’s all about mercy – thank God.

You may have heard that little voice that tries to tell you how unworthy you are. “You’re a sinner, how can you sit there in church?” “Don’t tell me how to live my life; you’re worse than I am!” “How can you even ask God to forgive you after everything you’ve done?” That little voice might come from someone we know, or maybe it’s just that nagging voice in the back of your head. But we’ve all heard it in some way or another at some time in our lives. In a way, the voice is right. We are sinners. There is no denying that. Saint Paul makes it very clear in today’s second reading: “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners,” he says. “Of these I am the foremost.” That’s true of all of us, certainly. But at a very fundamental level, the voice is dead wrong. Because we are never unworthy of mercy, we are never far from God’s love.

Jesus knows this is hard for us to accept, so he tells us three stories. Each of these stories is intended to shock us into seeing how radical God’s mercy really is. Now, honestly, to all of us who are far removed from the culture and everyday life of people in Jesus’ day, we might not get how shocking they are, until we really think about it.

In the first story, he asks a ludicrous question: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” The answer to that question is approximately zero! Because if he leaves the other ninety-nine behind to go after the lost one, he’ll have ninety-nine new problems when he returns! They’ll all be gone. So better to cut your losses and keep the other ninety-nine together. But God is not like the prudent shepherd. He will relentlessly pursue us when we wander astray and become lost and will not rest until he has us – all of us – back in the fold.

The second story isn’t quite as crazy, but it’s still a little out there. “What woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it?” On this one, it kind of depends. It depends upon the value of the coin. If it’s a small coin, it will probably cost more to buy oil for the lamp than the coin is worth, so better to wait until the sun comes up, and then sweep the house. One coin doesn’t matter so much that it can’t wait until the light of day. But God is not like that. Finding the lost one among us is absolutely urgent, and we are always worth the lamp oil.

Then we have the wonderful, very familiar parable of the prodigal son, which I prefer to call the parable of the very forgiving Father. Because I think the main character here is the father, and not the son, not either of the sons. Look at how forgiving the father is: First, he grants the younger son’s request to receive his inheritance before his father was even dead – which is so presumptuous that it really feels hurtful. Kind of like saying, “Hey dad, I can’t wait until you’re dead, give me my inheritance now, please.” But the father gives him the inheritance without ill-will. Secondly, the father reaches out to the younger son on his return, running out to meet him, and before he can even finish his little prepared speech, lavishes gifts on him and throws a party.

There is a tendency, I think, for us to put ourselves into the story, which is not a bad thing to do. But like I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to identify with the hard feelings of the older son sometimes. But let’s look at these two sons. First of all, I’ll just say it, it’s not like one was sinful and the other wasn’t – no – they are both sinful. The younger son’s sin is easy to see. But the older son, with his underlying resentment and refusal to take part in the joy of his Father, is sinful too. It’s worth noting that the Father comes out of the house to see both sons. That’s significant because a good Jewish father in those days wouldn’t come out to meet anyone – they would come to him. But the Father meets them where they are and urgently, lovingly, pleads with them to join the feast.

So, both sons are sinful. But remember, this is a parable, and so the characters themselves are significant. They all symbolize somebody. We know who the Father symbolizes. But the sons symbolize people – more specifically groups of people – too. The younger son was for Jesus symbolic of the non-believer sinners – all those tax collectors and prostitutes and other gentile sinners Jesus was accused of hanging around with. The older son symbolizes the people who should have known better: the religious leaders – the Pharisees and scribes. In this parable, Jesus is making the point that the sinners are getting in to the banquet of God’s kingdom before the religious leaders, because the sinners are recognizing their sinfulness, and turning back to the Father, who longs to meet them more than half way. The religious leaders think they are perfect and beyond all that repenting stuff, so they are missing out.

So again, it’s good to put ourselves in the story. Which son are we, really? Have we been like the younger son and messed up so badly that we are unworthy of the love of the Father, and deserve to be treated like a common servant? Or are we like the older son, and do we miss the love and mercy of God in pursuit of trying to look good in everyone else’s eyes? Maybe sometimes we are like one of the sons, and other times we are like the other. But the point is, that we often sin.

But our response has to be like the younger son’s. We have to be willing to turn back to the Father and be embraced in his mercy and love and forgiveness. We can’t be like the older son and refuse to be forgiven, insisting on our own righteousness. The stakes are too high for us to do that: we would be missing out on the banquet of eternal life to which Jesus Christ came to bring us.

And where does that bring us if not to the sacrament of Penance? We have heard the voices in our head or the voices of others. We have sinned, we are not worthy of the Father’s love. But he wants to love us anyway. All we have to do is turn back, by going to confession and being forgiven of our sins. We have fallen; we have failed; we have sinned, but the antidote to that poison is the great healing river of God’s mercy.

I don’t think we can adequately reflect on God’s mercy without recalling the horrible event that happened in our nation fifteen years ago today. On that horrible morning, terror was unleashed on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, on the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania. Those of us old enough to remember definitely remember how we felt on that horrible day. Fear, anger, sadness, overwhelming grief. How could something like that happen, and what kind of monsters could unleash such evil? It’s really hard to see how mercy can apply to people like that.

Honestly, I don’t know how you deal with the justice of that situation. There are some questions that we’ll never be able to answer on this side of the life of heaven. But we do know that we have been called to mercy: mercy for ourselves and mercy for others. Anger and fear serve no useful purpose and lead to nothing good.   But while we hold people accountable for the horrible things they have done, we trust God to give mercy to all of us, because dwelling on anger and fear harm us more than others. We pray for those who have been hurt by the horrors of that day. We pray for the conversion of those who live only to inflict evil. And we pray that God’s mercy will change all of us, making the world a place where things like 9-11 never happen again.

It’s all about mercy. Thank God.