The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Cycle C Readings)

Today’s readings

At the heart of it, Lent is about two things.  First, it’s about baptism.  That’s what the participants in our RCIA program are reflecting on these days, and eleven of them are preparing to be baptized at our Easter Vigil Mass this year. And baptism leads us to the second purpose of Lent, which is conversion: forgiveness and reconciliation and grace. Baptism is that sacrament that initially wipes away our sins and gives us grace to be in relationship with Jesus Christ, who leads us to the Father.

Jesus paints a picture of a very forgiving Father in today’s Gospel, so this story is of course perfect for Lent, when we ourselves are being called to return to God.  Now, I don’t know about you, but when I heard this story growing up, I was always kind of grumpy about what was going on.  I guess I’d have to say that I identified myself with the older son, who tried to do the right thing and got what seemed to be the short end of the deal.  Which is in and of itself sinful, to be honest.  But that’s not what the story is about.

We often call this parable the parable of the Prodigal Son, but I don’t think that’s right because I don’t think the story is about the son – either son – at least not primarily about them.  This story is instead about the father, and so I prefer to call this the parable of the Forgiving Father.  That puts the focus where I think Jesus intended it to be: on the father and his relationship with his sons.

So let’s look at what the forgiving father was all about.  First of all, he grants the younger son’s request to receive his inheritance before his father was even dead – which is so presumptuous that it feels hurtful. Kind of like saying, “Hey dad, I wish you were dead, give me my inheritance now, please – I just can’t wait.” But the Father gives him the inheritance immediately and 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.  If we’re honest, that kind of sin is much more common and much more destructive because it’s easy to overlook it or suppress it.  What amazes me is 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.  Probably on their hands and knees, begging for forgiveness.  But the Father meets them where they are and desperately, 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.  As I said, that kind of sin is easy to overlook and suppress.

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.  The point is, that we often sin, one way or the other.

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.

For us, this Lent, this might mean that we have to go to confession.  Even if we haven’t been in a long time.  We have confessions at 3pm for the next two Saturdays, next Saturday we also have confessions at 8am.  For the next two Fridays, we have confessions at 6pm, and next Sunday, the 7th, we will have several priests here to hear your confession at 2pm until all are heard.  Please don’t wait until the last minute; we will not have any confessions during Holy Week. Lent is the perfect time to use that wonderful sacrament of forgiveness to turn back to the Father who longs to meet us more than half way with his prodigal love and mercy.  So don’t let anything get in the way of doing it.  If you haven’t been to confession in a very long time, go anyway.  We priests are there to help you make a good confession and we don’t yell at you, don’t embarrass you – we are only there to help you experience God’s mercy.

We are all sinners and the stakes are high.  But the good news is that we have a Forgiving Father, who longs to meet us more than half way.  All we have to do is decide to turn back.

Thursday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

This week, the Scriptures have been warning us not to avoid the truth.  Today is no exception.  Today we see that the way we tend to avoid truth is often through obfuscation, trying to confuse the facts.  It’s a case of “the best defense is a good offense,” where we attack the truth wherever we see it addressing our lives and our mistakes.

The prophet Jeremiah takes the nation of Israel to task for this in today’s first reading.  These are a people who have heard the truth over and over.   God has not stopped sending prophets to preach the word.  But the Israelites would not listen.  They preferred to live in the world, and to attach themselves to the nations and their worship of idols and pagan gods.  They had been warned constantly that this was going to be the source of their demise, but they tuned it out.  They “stiffened their necks,” Jeremiah says, and now faithfulness has disappeared and there is no word of truth in anything they say: a scathing indictment of the people God had chosen as his own.

Some of the Jews are giving Jesus the same treatment in today’s Gospel.  Seeing him drive out a demon, they are filled with jealousy and an enormous sense of inadequacy.  These are religious leaders; they had the special care of driving away demons from the people.  But they couldn’t:  maybe their lukewarm faith made them ineffective in this ministry.  So on seeing Jesus competent at what was their special care, they cast a hand-grenade of rhetoric at him and reason that only a demon could cast out demons like he did.

We will likely hear the word of truth today.  Maybe it will come from these Scriptures, or maybe later in our prayerful moments.  Perhaps it will be spoken by a child or a coworker or a relative or a friend.  However the truth is given to us, it is up to us to take it in and take it to heart.  Or will we too be like the Jews and the Israelites and stiffen our necks?  No, the Psalmist tells us, we can’t be that way.  “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

The book of Daniel the Prophet is one of my favorite books of Scripture. If you haven’t read that book, that would be a great one to take in during Lent. It won’t take terribly long, but be sure you read it from a Catholic edition of the Bible because other editions won’t contain the whole thing.

The story goes that Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael were in the king’s court along with Daniel. They had been well-educated and cared for, and in turn advised the king on matters of wisdom and knowledge. They were better at doing this than anyone in the king’s court, except for one thing. The king, who worshiped idols, had crafted an idol that each person in the kingdom was to bow down and worship several times a day. But Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael were good Jews and would only worship God alone. So they were bound up and cast into the fiery furnace, to their certain demise.

Now you may know this as the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, which were the names the king gave them when they entered his service. If you know the story, then you know the flames did not harm them, and an angel appeared in the furnace to protect them. During that time, Azariah prayed the beautiful prayer we have in our first reading. He acknowledges that his people have been sinful, but prays that God would deliver them because the people currently have no prophet or anyone who could lead them. God’s deliverance of Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael from the fiery furnace is a symbol of God’s planned deliverance of the people from their captivity, which in turn is a symbol of God’s deliverance, through Jesus Christ, from our captivity to sin.

We forgiven and delivered people have to be people of forgiveness, though, as we hear in today’s Gospel. Our own redemption is never complete until we untie the others in our lives whose sins or offenses against us we have bound up. Until we forgive from our hearts, we will never really be free from the bondage of sin. That doesn’t mean we have to be doormats and take abuse from other people. It just means that we let go of the hurt and forgive as we have been forgiven.

The Third Sunday of Lent – Scrutiny I: Give Us Living Water

Today’s readings

Note: This homily was for the Mass at which the RCIA Elect were present for the First Scrutiny, so particular readings are used for that.

What is it going to take to quench the thirst that you have right now?

We’re lucky; we live in a part of the world where we can reach for all sorts of things when we’re thirsty. There is soda of all kinds, beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages, and all kinds of hot drinks like coffee and tea. But not all of them are appropriate all the time. For example I love coffee, tea and occasionally a good glass of wine. But after I’ve exercised or done some kind of strenuous work, or walked outside when it’s hot, none of those things can help me. In those moments, I need a cold glass of water. Our bodies are made up largely of water, and so when that level is low, there’s only one thing that can quench our thirst.

So again, what is it going to take to quench the thirst that you have right now?

There’s a lot of water in today’s Liturgy of the Word. The Israelites, near the beginning of their forty year journey through the desert, are beginning to miss some of the comforts of home, like water! So when they complain to the Lord, he gives them water in the desert. And let’s not downplay this: it’s pretty amazing – they had water in the desert! And in our Gospel today, our Lord stops along his own journey to get a drink of water from the Samaritan woman – and this whole interaction is less about Jesus’ physical thirst than it is about other kinds of thirst in the story – but more on that in a bit.

We always have to think about why the Church is giving us these particular readings on this particular day. Why is it that we have part of the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert in our first reading, and the rather strange story of the interaction with the woman at the well in the Gospel today? Well, (no pun intended) whenever there’s this much water being mentioned in the readings, we need to think of a particular sacrament, and that sacrament of course is Baptism.

Now maybe it makes a little sense. We have our Elect with us today, and they are preparing to receive baptism at the Easter Vigil. But even that’s not the whole story. Because this reading is for all of us. Lent itself is about baptism, and even if we’ve already been baptized, there’s still work to do. We are still being converted to become more like our Lord every day of our life. That’s what Lent is all about – getting back on the path and going a little farther forward. Lent points out for all of us that we’re still thirsty.

So again, what is it going to take to quench the thirst you have right now?

For the Israelites, it’s hard to know what was going to help them. They’re just at the beginning of their journey and already they’re complaining. They get thirsty and the first thing they do is complain – notice carefully, they complained, not prayed – and tell Moses that they’d rather be back in Egypt in slavery than out wandering around in the desert with nothing to quench their thirst. And it’s not like the slavery they experienced in Egypt was a minor inconvenience – it was pretty horrible and if they missed their quota even by a little bit, they were severely beaten. But sometimes it’s better the devil you know: sometimes we get stuck on what we’ve become used to and have given up yearning for something more.

For the woman at the well, there’s a lot stacked against her and there is no reason Jesus should have been talking to her. In fact, the disciples, when they return and witness it, aren’t really sure what they should make of it. Because in that culture, nobody talked to Samaritans – it would be like striking up a casual conversation with an Isis member. And for a man to speak to an unaccompanied woman was unthinkable. But Jesus knew she was thirsty – see it wasn’t about his thirst at all, rather, as Saint Augustine tells us, Jesus was thirsting for her faith.

It’s a pretty weird conversation, to be honest. But in talking about her five previous husbands and the Samaritans’ practice of worshipping on the mountain, Jesus was pointing out how her own search for something to quench her thirst was so far pretty futile. She was looking for love in all the wrong places. The five men she was married to represented a history of failed attempts at finding love. And the guy she was shacked up with now represented the fact that she’d pretty much given up any hope of ever finding true love. But the fact that Jesus knew all this without her saying a word about it woke her up a bit. And so then they go on to talk about how the Samaritans worshiped. They were looking for God on the mountain, but the thing is, the God they were looking for is the same Love that she had been searching for in her relationships, and he was standing right in front of her now.

So what is it that is finally going to quench the thirst you have right now?

Are you going to stay in the slavery of your former way of life, or do you want to journey on to the Promised Land? Are you going to continue to be content with failed or broken or impure relationships, or are you going to refresh them with Living Water? Are you going to continue to leave God up on that mountaintop where he doesn’t get in the way of your daily life, until you need something? Or are you going to look him in the eye and ask him to give you what you really need so you’ll never thirst again?

Because for the Israelites, it wasn’t really water they needed. They needed a renewed relationship with God. And the woman at the well didn’t need those guys who weren’t leading her to right worship. She needed Living Water. In fact, she became so convinced of it that she left her bucket behind – that bucket that symbolized her former way of life.

We’re all on a journey. The journeys of our Elect don’t end at the Easter Vigil when I pour water over their heads – it just starts there. All of us together are journeying on to the Promised Land of eternal life. And the only way we’re going to get there is by drinking deeply of the Living Water and allowing the One who gives it to us to lead us. And to get started on the journey, we’re going to have to leave Egypt, and our buckets, behind.

Saturday of the Second Week of Lent: He Welcomes Sinners and Eats with Them

Today’s readings

That Jesus would welcome sinners and eat with them is obviously a huge deal.  There was thought that associating with sinners made one complicit in the sin; so the audacity of such an action was sinful in and of itself, at least as far as the religious leadership was concerned.  But as an act of mercy, it’s grace unlike anything else.  And the significance for us is understandable.  Jesus still welcomes sinners and eats with them.  If that were not true, none of us would be here for the Eucharist today, would we?

Something that often gets overlooked in this very familiar parable is that both of the sons are sinful.  It’s obvious that the youngest is sinful: taking half of his inheritance before his father is even in the grave, living a life of dissipation and sexual excess, using up all that money in a short time, content to eat among the swine which no good Jew would even think about touching, and finding himself very, very broken.  But the so-called good son is sinful too.  On his brother’s return, he refuses to go into the house to welcome him back, and takes his father to task for showing mercy and love.  In the Gospel, failure to forgive is itself sinful.

Both sons are sinful in their own way.  Both need the father’s love and mercy and forgiveness.  And both receive it.  Far from the way a proper Jewish father would act, he runs out to meet both sons where they are.  Protocol would have them come to him, and not he to them.  But he comes out twice: once to meet the younger son who is on the way back to him, and once to meet his older son who refuses to come in.

There is often discussion on where we find ourselves in this very familiar parable.  Are we the sinful son?  Are we the good son?  Are we the father?  It probably depends on the day – we might be like all of them at one time or another.  I don’t think that’s what matters here.  What matters is that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them – in our case, feeding us with the finest bread and wine which are of course his very own Body and Blood.  Without this grace, we would have no life – salvation would only be a pipe dream.  But because this grace is very real, we have the opportunity to gather here at the Table of the Lord, and one day, please God, at the great heavenly banquet.

Praise God today for his forgiveness, mercy and grace.  Praise God that he welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Thursday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

I’m going to say something that is probably going to make you think I’m wrong. And that is that the great sin of the rich man was not the sin of neglecting poor Lazarus. Sure, that was certainly bad, but his greatest sin, I think, was that he trusted in himself instead of in God. That’s the deadly sin of pride, and the Fathers of the Church often tell us of the devastating effects of it. So for the rich man, well he had everything he thought he needed in life, and he trusted in himself and in his own means to get it. But he never had a relationship with God; he didn’t see that as something he needed. You don’t see him praying in the story or even giving thanks to God for his riches. All you see is him doing is enjoying what he has amassed, to the neglect of the poor.

So later on in the story, in death, he wants the good things God will provide for those who trust in him, people like Lazarus for example.   Lazarus has suffered much, and as the Old Testament Prophets proclaim, God is especially close to the poor and needy, so now he is exalted. But the rich man isn’t. He has already made his choice, and unfortunately now, trusting in himself doesn’t bring him anything good.

So the problem with this is that we are often the rich man and not so much Lazarus. We have a lot of stuff, we are blessed on earth more than most of the people in the world today. But sadly that often puts us at odds with the things of heaven. We can’t reach out for those when we’re holding on to the passing things of this world. We can’t take the hand of Jesus when we’re juggling the stuff life throws our way. That’s why fasting is so important during Lent, as well as almsgiving: both bid us let go of passing things so that we can have, like Lazarus, things eternal. Both bid us trust in God, not in ourselves and other human beings. Jeremiah says it plainly today: “Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD.” But, conversely, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD.”

So the question is, in whom do we trust? In ourselves? In other people? Or in God? “Blessed are they,” the Psalmist says today, “who hope in the Lord.”

Monday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

These readings for the weekdays of Lent are especially challenging, aren’t they?  They’re supposed to be.  They speak of what it means to be a disciple and take up the cross, and they speak of it with urgency.  We have to be willing to have our whole world turned upside-down; to do something completely against our nature; to let God take control of the life we want so much to control.

“For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”  I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty ominous to me.  Because there have been plenty of times when I’ve failed to give someone a break.  The measure I sometimes use ends up being a bar set pretty high, and I would sure hate to have to leap over that bar myself.  But that’s what Jesus is saying we will have to do.

The real measure of compassion is the compassion of God himself.  He is our model, He is the measure for which we are to strive, His example is how we are to treat each other.  But when we do that, it means we can’t judge others harshly.  It means that we have to see them as God does, which is to say that we have to see Jesus in them and to see the goodness in them.   And that’s hard to do when that person has just cut you off in traffic, or has gossiped about you, or has crossed you in some other way. But even then — maybe especially then — we are called to stop judging others and show them the compassion of God.

“Lord, do not deal with us according to our sins.”  That is the prayer of the Psalmist today.  We are given the promise of forgiveness, but we are also warned that if we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven either.  The measure with which we measure will in turn be measured out to us.  I don’t know about you, but I’m going to try real hard to give people a break today.

Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent / Saint Patrick

Today’s readings

I used to be upset that Saint Patrick’s Day always happened during Lent.  I’d have to postpone the celebration of my favorite saint until Sunday, especially if it fell on a Friday, because we just didn’t have corned beef on Friday, you know.  But as I’ve grown older, I appreciate that Saint Patrick’s Day is in Lent, because I think Saint Patrick has a lot to say to us about Lent.

Lent, is a time of conversion and renewal of faith.  Saint Patrick’s life was one of conversion.  He wrote about that in his famous Confession, which was a work that talked all about his life of faith.  Listen to what he said at the beginning of it:  “And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance.  And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.”

And so we have here a great story of conversion.  Because we are sinners too, right?  I think that it’s so important for us to see that the great saints didn’t start out that way.  They were sinners, but they just kept on trying to be better, to be holier, to come to know and love God more.  Saint Patrick writes of an unmentioned sin, dating from before he was ordained, even before he was living a Christian life.  The sin was apparently known to a friend of his – a friend who lobbied for him to become a bishop, and then later betrayed him to his superiors.  Patrick had long since moved on from where he was at the time this sin was committed, he is an older man now, looking back on the mistakes he made as a youth, and not bearing any ill-will toward those who would rub his nose in it, he thanks God for the strength he has since gained: “So I give thanks to the one who cared for me in all my difficulties, because he allowed me to continue in my chosen mission and the work that Christ my master taught me.  More and more I have felt inside myself a great strength because my faith was proven right before God and the whole world.”  It’s just like what we heard from Ezekiel in today’s first reading: If the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed, if he keeps all my statutes and does what is right and just, he shall surely live, he shall not die. God wants us to turn back to him, always.

Saint Patrick had to weather so many storms in his life. He was kidnapped and enslaved, he worked in mission territory among people who at times were hostile to the Christian way of life, he was betrayed by a friend and besieged by fellow clergymen who were jealous of the success of his ministry and critical of the way he did it.  But through it all, he was grateful for the power of God at work in him.  The faith that led him to be that way was nourished on a strong friendship with God.

One of my favorite things that we have from Saint Patrick is known as the “Lorica” or “Breastplate” prayer.  Some say he didn’t actually write it, but I think he did, because it was the kind of thing that he would have written, given the faith that he had. It’s a great prayer of deliverance from evil and reliance on the power of God:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through the confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the Judgment Day.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of demons,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

What a wonderful prayer, a prayer that we would recognize Christ in every part of our day, no matter how little or big a thing we are doing. That we would recognize Christ in every person in our lives, and that we would recognize Christ wherever we are.

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

If we take one thought out of Lent, it should be this: we need a Savior.

Even before Jesus’ time, Esther knew this. Esther’s adoptive father Mordecai was a deeply religious man. His devotion incurred the wrath of Haman the Agagite, who was a court official of King Ahasuerus of Persia. Mordecai refused to pay homage to Haman in the way prescribed by law, because he felt that it was idolatry. Because of this, Haman developed a deep hatred for Mordecai, and by extension, all of the Israelite people. He convinced King Ahasuerus to decree that all Israelites be put to death, and they cast lots to determine the date for this despicable event.

Meanwhile, Esther, Mordecai’s adopted daughter, is chosen to fill a spot in the King’s harem, replacing Queen Vashti. Esther never had revealed her own Israelite heritage to the King. Mordecai came to Esther to inform her of the decree that Haman had proposed, and asked her to intercede on behalf of her own people to the King. She was terrified to do this because court rules forbade her to come to the king without an invitation. She asked Mordecai to have all of her people fast and pray, and she did the same. The prayer that she offered is beautifully rendered in today’s first reading.

Esther knew that there was no one that could help her, and that it was totally on her shoulders to intercede for her people. Doing this was a risk to her own life, and the only one that she could rely on was God himself. Her prayer was heard, her people were spared, and Haman himself was hung from the same noose that had been prepared for Mordecai and all his fellow Israelites.

God hears our own persistent prayers. We must constantly pray, and trust all of our needs to the one who knows them before we do. We must ask, seek and knock of the one who made us and cares for us deeply. But most of all, we must always be aware that like Esther, we all need a Savior.

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