Today we celebrate the great feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King of the Universe. It’s one of those feasts that I think we can say, yeah, okay, I believe that. But it really doesn’t affect me. I mean, we don’t even have the political reference of being ruled by a king any more. Not only that, I think we as a society have pretty much bracketed the whole idea of authority. Basically if an authority gives us permission to do whatever we want, then fine, he or she can be in authority. But the minute that authority tries to limit us in any way, then whoa: hang on a minute.
Yet there are times when we do want an authority. Whenever we are wronged, we want an authority to give us justice. Whenever we are in danger, we want an authority to keep us safe. Whenever we are in need, we want an authority to bring us fulfillment. But other than when we need something, we hardly ever seek any kind of authority. Certainly not as a society, and if we’re being honest, not as individuals. As an example, take the days after the tragedy of 9-11. Our whole world was shattered. I wasn’t here then, but I would be willing to bet the church was filled to overflowing; I know my home parish was. In those days, we wanted an authority to bring us peace and comfort and rest. But now that we’re seventeen years on the other side of it, look around. Not so many people in the pews, right? If Christ was the authority then, what makes him less of an authority now? We certainly did not come through those harrowing days with our own feeble efforts, but when we don’t have buildings crashing down around us, we don’t seem to remember that.
Still, the Church gives us this important feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King of the Universe to remind us that there is an authority. Christ is King in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. Christ is king of the Universe and king of our own lives. And if that’s true, we have to be ready to live that way. So no, we can’t just do whatever we want. And no, just because we believe something with all our hearts, that doesn’t make it truth. And no, the idea of living according to our conscience doesn’t mean that it’s okay as long as it works for me. The world would have us believe that, but the world will one day come to an end. If we want the possibility of eternity, then we have to be open to the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe!
In today’s first reading, we have the promise of the king: one like a son of man with an everlasting dominion. This part of the book of Daniel comes from a series of visions. In these visions, particularly the one we have today, Daniel gives the Jews hope in persecution. This is a vision that is spoken to lift the people up and help them to know that their hope is in God. The Jews of his day have been being persecuted by the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes IV. He and his henchmen were certainly persecuting the Jews who insisted on living the Jewish way of life. But what is even more evil and more disastrous to the community, is that some of the Jews were starting to think that giving up their way of life and instead worshiping the gods of the Greeks was a good idea. They figured if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So, why not give up their own faith to follow one that seems to be working better? The biggest danger they faced was losing their faith to the pagans by adopting pagan ways of life.
We clearly are not under the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes, but we are definitely in danger of losing our faith to the pagan forces of this world. And there are so many seductive ways that pagan forces weasel their way into our lives and tempt us to give in to their power over us. Relativism and intolerance for Catholic values seem to be winning more souls every day. Everything that promises us power, success and wealth has the ability to take our hearts and souls with it. Why not just give in? Won’t paganism and evil win out in the end?
Well, Daniel sure didn’t think so. He prophesied that there would be one like a Son of Man who would triumph over Antiochus and others like him. This One would deliver them from the persecution they suffered and from the seduction that confronted them. This One would rule the world in justice and peace, and would lead the persecuted ones to a kingdom that would never pass away.
The early Church identified this Son of Man with Jesus Christ. He is the One who has power to rule over all and he is the One whose kingdom is everlasting. He even referred to himself as the Son of Man, and made it clear that he was the Son of Man who would suffer for the people. He came to deliver those first Christians from persecution with the promise that he would indeed come again, and that same promise is made to us as well.
But the problem was, he didn’t return right away. People lost faith, gave in to persecution, and just went with the powerful forces of the day. The delay in his return led some to believe that he was not returning, and so they should just do what seemed expedient. Why not go with the victorious pagan forces of the world? Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?
Jesus told Pilate in today’s Gospel that his Kingdom was not of this world. That should be the red flag for us. When we begin to worship and follow the forces of this world, we know that we are in the wrong place. The preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, which I will sing in a few minutes, tells us the kind of kingdom that Christ came to bring and we should long for is a kingdom like this:
…an eternal and universal kingdom
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love and peace.
Christ is the King, the Son of Man, who will lead us to a kingdom not made by human hands, a kingdom that will not pass away, a kingdom of eternal beauty and unfathomable joy. The choice is ours, though. Will we follow the pagan forces of this world, or will we follow Our Lord Jesus Christ the King to that perfect and everlasting kingdom, not of this world that will certainly pass away, but the kingdom of eternity and the life of heaven?
So many religious people tend to get concerned about the end of time. Some years ago, there was a serious of books called Left Behind, and a couple of movies made from them. The premise was that Jesus returned to take all the faithful people home, and “left behind” everyone else. It’s a notion known as the rapture, which is not taught by the Catholic Church, because it was never revealed in Scripture or Tradition. In fact, no Christian denomination taught this until the late nineteenth century, so despite being a popular notion, at least among those who clamored after that series of books, it is not an authentic teaching.
I mention this because you might hear today’s Gospel and think of the rapture. But Jesus is really talking about the final judgment, which we hear of often in the readings during these waning days of the Church year. In the final judgment, we will all come before the Lord, both as nations and as individuals. Here those who have made a decision to respond to God’s gifts of love and grace will be saved, and those who have rejected these gifts will be left to their own devices, left to live outside God’s presence for eternity.
So concern about when this will happen – which Jesus tells us nobody knows – is a waste of time. Instead, we have to be concerned about responding to God’s gift and call in the here-and-now. John tells us how to do that in today’s first reading: “Let us love one another.” This is not, as he points out, a new commandment; indeed, Jesus commanded this very clearly, and pointed out that love of God and neighbor is the way that we can be sure that we are living all of the law and the prophets.
The day of our Lord’s return will indeed take us all by surprise. We’ll all be doing what we do; let’s just pray that we’re all doing what we’re supposed to do: love one another.
Today we celebrate the memorial of Saint Josaphat, who was born in what is now Poland to Orthodox parents. He later became a Basilian monk, and was chosen bishop of Vitebsk, in what is now Russia. His task was to bridge the divide between the Roman and Orthodox Church, but this was not easy, because the Orthodox monks did not want union with Rome; they feared interference in liturgy and customs. But over time, using synods and other instruction, he was able to win many of the Orthodox in that area to the union.
But the fight was far from over. A dissident faction of the church was formed, and they fomented opposition to Josaphat. Eventually the mob murdered him and threw his body into a river. The body was recovered and is now buried in St. Peter’s basilica. Josaphat is the first saint of the Eastern Church to be canonized by Rome.
Josaphat had an insurmountable task to accomplish. But he had faith that God would give him what he needed to accomplish the mission. He knew well Jesus’ message in today’s Gospel: that the smallest seed of faith has power to uproot trees and plant in places where nothing like faith grows. In just the same way, a small seed of faith on our part can cause awesome growth in improbable places, if we let it.
Today’s Gospel has some rather obvious applications, not all of which are entirely accurate. For example, many may hear this Gospel reading as a condemnation of the rich or a warning against having too much money or pursuing wealth. Indeed, riches can be a distraction and an obstacle to a relationship with the Lord, and our Lord does warn in other places against pursuing wealth or not using it correctly. Saint Paul says to Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10) But having money is not in and of itself evil; in fact, having money can be an opportunity for holiness if one uses one’s wealth to serve and build others up. But I really do not think that Jesus was using this particular opportunity to condemn greed; I think he was going for a different message here.
Another application of this reading might be to encourage stewardship. Here the idea would be that virtuous stewardship consists of giving sacrificially and not just pledging some of one’s surplus wealth. There’s something to be said for that, because the requirement to be a good steward does include the notion of sacrificial giving, giving from one’s need. In giving from our need, we trust God with our well-being, and he never fails in generosity. So maybe Jesus is calling on us to give more so that he can give more – when we create want in our lives, there is space for God to give more grace.
So in both of these applications, the subject is money and its use. But when it comes down to it, I don’t think Jesus intended money to be the subject here. I think instead, he was focusing on the sacrifice.
Look at what he said the widow did. She put into the treasury a small amount, but it was all she had: Jesus says, “but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, hew whole livelihood.” Not so different from that is the sacrifice of the widow of Zarephath in the first reading. Elijah had prophesied a drought over all of the Land, God’s punishment for the wicked acts of their kings. And so water and food were in scarce supply, and God sends Elijah to the widow. She’s just about to use up the last of her flour and oil to cook a final meal for herself and her son, when Elijah meets her and asks her to make him some food. He encourages her to trust God, and when she does by giving all that she has, she finds God faithful to feed all of them for some time.
So I’d like to suggest that both of these widows had given everything for their relationship with God. They trusted Him with their very lives by giving everything had to give. It’s a super-scary thing to do, isn’t it? We are ones who love to be in control of our lives and of our situations, and so giving up all of that gives us more than a little pause. But honestly, it takes that kind of a leap of faith to get into heaven. If we still are grasping onto stuff, then our hands are full, and we cannot receive from God the gifts and the grace he wants to give us.
Look at the cross. That, friends, is the prime example of giving everything. And our God did that for us. Jesus went gave everything he had by giving his life, suffering the pain of death that we might be forgiven of our sins and attain the blessings of heaven. God is faithful and so he will not leave us hanging when we give everything for him.
But here’s an important message: the time is short. The Church gives us this reading very purposely on the third-to-last Sunday of the Church year for a reason. Because if we’re still hanging onto the stuff that keeps us bound to this life, we may very well miss our invitation to eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. To get to heaven, we have to choose our relationship with God over everything else in our lives. Everything. We have to empty our hands of all this earthly wealth so that we might obtain heavenly wealth. We have to give everything we have for our God who gave everything to us and for us, or we’ll be left out. Hell is truly having nothing, not even Christ, and that’s real poverty. So we need to model our lives after the example of the widows in our readings today, giving everything, so that we might have Christ who is everything we need.
Today’s Gospel calls us to examine our perspective. Jesus asks, “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?” Well, those men he talked to were shepherds, or had shepherds in their family, so they would have responded “nobody would do that!” Why on earth would they risk losing the other ninety-nine sheep to find the lost one?
And as far as the coin goes, why bother staying up all night? It would probably have cost more to light the lamp and search all night than the coin was worth. It would be wiser to wait until she had the morning light and could find it easily.
But here’s the perspective part: God is not like us. Every sheep among us is important, and he will relentlessly pursue us individually until he has us all in the sheepfold. And if we’re lost, he’s going to light a lamp and stay up all night until he has us back. For him, one of us is every bit as important as the other ninety-nine. Even if our own self-image is poor, we are a treasure in God’s eyes.
And that’s all well and good, but we always have to ask ourselves why the Church gives us this reading again in the closing days of the Church year. We hear these kinds of parables typically in the summer months, when the Church wants us to see that God loves us and wants us to be his disciples. But hearing the parables in these days, there’s a little more urgency. Time is running short, and it’s time for the lost ones to be found and gathered up and celebrated. These waning days of the Church year are a foreshadowing of the end of time, and so we need to cooperate with God in making the urgent message of God’s love known in every time and place.
And so that’s what the Kingdom of heaven is like. It’s a relentless pursuit and a flurry of activity until we are all back where we belong. Once we are all with God, the joyful celebration can continue, knowing that we are all back where we were always meant to be.
Go out to the highways and hedgerows
and make people come in that my home may be filled.
Today, Jesus is still at the home of the Pharisee where he went to have dinner, as we heard in yesterday’s Gospel. One of the people at table says to him, “Blessed is the one who will dine in the Kingdom of God.” While not disagreeing with that person, Jesus intends to clarify who will be at the table and who will not. Those who will be dining in the Kingdom are those who intentionally live in it. While the Pharisees may have thought that meant it was they who would be blessed, Jesus tells a parable to clarify the matter.
The parable illustrates that those who were invited were occupied with other matters: a new field, a new team of oxen, a new spouse. Their rejection forced the host to offer the dinner to a new group of people: those outside of the accepted group. And so his servants went out into the streets and alleys, hedgerows and highways to fill the house, because none of the original invitees would be welcome at the table. So Jesus is doing something new. Since the religious establishment had found other more pressing matters than relationship with their God, he would now turn to those who were rejected and marginalized, and invite them to dine in the Kingdom.
But that command to the servants is for us, his servants. There’s plenty of room in the Kingdom; the table is large and the spaces at it are plenty. We are being sent out to the margins to “make people come in.” This demands that we be missionary disciples. We have to be the ones to help people to know they are welcome, no matter how far they have strayed, no matter who has refused to welcome them in the past. The mission is always new, and always pressing. If we are serious about serving our God, we have no other choice but to go out looking for dinner guests!
“In you, O Lord, I have found my peace.”
I believe that one of the goals of all our lives is to find true peace. And unfortunately, we spend time looking for that peace in too many of the wrong places. We might think we can find peace in wealth, or status, or whatever, but these things tend to lose their luster rather quickly, and the pursuit of them often stirs up something far less than peaceful in our lives.
But the Psalmist tells us exactly what is going to bring us that true peace that we look for, or rather, who is going to bring it. And that is the Lord. We could go after great things, looking for something beyond what God wants for us. Or we could go after things too sublime, things that require more from us than what we can give, but the Psalmist refuses to go there. Rather, he says, he has stilled and quieted his soul like a child on its mother’s lap.
True peace is a product of quieting one’s soul and finding God’s will. Reaching for things that don’t concern us, trying to get involved in things that are not what God wants for us, letting ourselves get dragged into sin, those things will never bring us peace. Only in the Lord is our hope and our peace.