Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

I should begin with at least an acknowledgement that this reflection is late. That had something to do with getting ordained to the diaconate on Friday, preaching on Saturday, and baptizing my niece on Sunday. More on all of that later. But when I preached on Saturday, I preached on this very text. So without further ado…

The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins
who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
The foolish ones, when taking their lamps,
brought no oil with them,
but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.

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

So the parable happens just as the negotiations are complete and they are expecting the bridegroom to go to the bride’s house. He is delayed a bit, and they all fall asleep. But that is not the problem. The problem is that half of them were unprepared.

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

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

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

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

When we get to the feast, if our flasks are not full, it is already too late. As we approach the immanent end of this Church year (there’s just less than three weeks left), let us look back and see how well we have filled our flasks in the last year. And let us steadfastly resolve to fill those flasks to overflowing in the year ahead. The only way we can do that is by zealously seeking our God, praying the prayer of the Psalmist:

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

Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

The idea of servant leadership is a hot topic for me these days. As I and my friends prepare to be ordained as transitional deacons, the whole meaning of the word is encompassed in today’s Gospel reading. The Greek word, diakonos, means service. In Christ’s Kingdom, those who are to lead, are to serve, as He did.

The model for our service, and our leadership, is Christ on the Cross. Love who and what He loved … all the way to death. It’s a hard act to follow, but then, we’re not expected to do it alone. All of us are called to this kind of service, but especially those of us who are called to lead. There is no leadership in the Kingdom that is not service — none.

So we don’t get to widen our phylacteries (I’ve always wanted to use that word in my blog!) and we can forget about lengthening our tassels: the concept of Christian leadership isn’t just for show. And if our leadership is really authentic, then it won’t take wide phylacteries or long tassels to see it. This doesn’t mean we don’t wear clerical garb or anything like that; it simply means that the garb is the afterthought — service comes first.

If we have learned anything in these past few years about leadership, it ought to be that we can’t just get by on our looks. That gets us into trouble every time. Forget what it looks like, serve the Lord, serve His people, serve His Church, serve the Kingdom. If that’s where our focus is, everyone will see that, and people will be moved.

St. Paul says it well in today’s second reading from his first letter to the Church at Thessalonica:

You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery.
Working night and day in order not to burden any of you,
we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly,
that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us,
you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God,
which is now at work in you who believe.

Servant leaders do not ask people to bow and scrape to them. Instead, they roll up their sleeves, and work for the sake of the Kingdom of God. It is then that the Gospel gets preached not just in words, but in our very living. St. Francis said well that we are to preach the Gospel at all times, using words “when necessary.”

Our living is our preaching, and our preaching is our living.

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him,
“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

First of all, I’m sorry this reflection is late. I know some of you check this blog out frequently for lectionary reflections, and I appreciate that … you’ve been keeping me honest! So with that in mind, and my sincere apologies, let’s look at last Sunday’s scriptures.

Jesus quotes with all of the ease of being a good Jew the greatest commandments. He has been taught them from his youth, as all Jewish children would have been. (We’ll just let go for now the special knowledge he may have of these based on his divinity…) But the important part is his last sentence: The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. With all the skill of a good rabbi, Jesus sums up the scriptures in one call to action: love of God and love of neighbor.

It’s simple. As we dedicate ourselves to God and one another, we fulfill everything the law and prophets always tried to do. The Gospel, though, gives us the mechanism to really do it: freedom. God always meant for us to be truly free, and that freedom does not equal “license” or lawlessness. It does not equal doing whatever we want or expressing any thought that crosses our minds: our freedom cannot trample the rights and freedoms of others, or we have lost sight of the goal of the greatest commandments.

True freedom is ridding ourselves of the attachments that keep us from loving God and neighbor fully. Everything that holds us back and drags us down must be cut away mercilessly or we cannot love God and neighbor freely. And ironically, when we do not love God and neighbor freely, we are never really free.

The hard part is cutting away the attachments: the relationships that are not healthy; the entertainments that do not edify; the concern for self that does not let us reach out to others; the desire for success that manifests itself in greed. The list can get long, and it can be hard to identify those attachments in our lives. But the Psalmist today gives us the criteria:

I love you, O LORD, my strength,
O LORD, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer.

Whatever takes our eyes off this truth, this praise, this love of God who is our Savior, that must be cut away. Mercilessly.

This is painful, yes. But the payoff is great: true freedom.

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

At that he said to them,
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.”

Whose image is this?

I think this statement begs the question, “What doesn’t belong to God?” I think I’ve often missed this irony on Jesus’ part.

After all, Jesus certainly wasn’t preaching that we should compartmentalize our lives: every part of our lives belongs to God, and we owe it all back to Him. Every moment of our time, every earthly treasure we may own, all of our talents and gifts, our health and well-being, our very breath … all of this belongs to God. And all of it has been given to us as a great trust.

We are stewards of all that we are and all that we have. We need to get it right, and to live every moment as though we were borrowing these great treasures from our generous and giving God.

The thought occurs to me that these words may seem empty to those who have comparatively little. Those who don’t have great health, or great wealth. The unemployed and those with financial troubles. The aged and lonely. So many have what seems to be great poverty. Yet many of those who might be considered very poor can teach the rest of us how to get it right. So many who have comparatively little give what little they have, knowing it belongs to God.

Because with God it doesn’t matter whether we’re wealthy or not, healthy or sick: what matters is that we use what we have for God’s purposes and that we sing with the Psalmist:

Give to the LORD, you families of nations,
give to the LORD glory and praise;
give to the LORD the glory due his name!

28th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Wedding Garment

“But when the king came in to meet the guests,
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.
The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it
that you came in here without a wedding garment?’
But he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet,
and cast him into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’”

Deacon Bob at my home parish today spoke of this parable as a case of someone wanting the Kingdom of heaven, but on his own terms. That really struck a chord with me. I had been thinking about the whole idea of the wedding garment as I lived with this Scripture this week. It’s a colorful detail that’s really hard to overlook in this parable, and I think it has to be explained homiletically.

It probably stands out because it can be seen as an example of Jesus being unfair. If the man was poor, as we can perhaps surmise from the fact that he was brought in off the street, how could Jesus have expected him to be in a proper garment? But we’re told by scholars that at the time, when someone threw a wedding feast, they provided the regal garments for their guests to wear. So Jesus wasn’t expecting the man to do anything difficult: he was invited, he presumably knew the custom, he was provided with a proper and beautiful garment, but he refused to put it on. He wanted to be at the feast, but on his terms, not those of the host.

The feast foreshadows the great wedding feast in the Kingdom of heaven to which we are all invited. Jesus goes so far as to have his servants call people in off the streets, from the highways and biways; he has his servants bring people in from wherever they are. And that’s the wonderful thing about the heavenly banquet: all are welcome, indeed, all are brought in, no matter what kind of garment they are currently wearing, because our God longs to meet us where we are.

And we are provided with a beautiful garment: in baptism we can clothe our souls in a garment that is regal and perfect. Our task is to put on that garment, to preserve the beauty of that garment and bring it unstained to the heavenly banquet. That’s the part that calls for our response: we have to accept the invitation, put on the garment, and preserve its beauty until the day that we are called to the banquet.

But there are so many problems that enter in. We are tempted in so many ways to accept ways of life that stain that garment, or even cause us to take it off completely. We may think we’ll have time to put it on and clean it up later, whenever later may be. We still want to be at the banquet, but we want to get there on our own terms. And it doesn’t work that way.

God forbid that we would arrive without the proper garment. God forbid that we would arrive with that garment in horrible condition. We have been given so much: the free invitation, the free garment, and all it takes is our own response. We have to accept it all on God’s terms, whose ways are not our ways, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. So may we all accept the Kingdom on God’s terms that we might exclaim with the Psalmist:

You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Finally, brothers and sisters,
whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
– Philippians 4:8-9

One of my favorite passages of Scripture today. It always makes me think twice about what I’m thinking about. A lot of the stuff we let ourselves see, well, we weren’t created to see. God wants nothing for the best for us, and He provides that. But we have to open our eyes to it and close our eyes to the false, the dishonorable, the unjust, the impure, the ugly, the ingracious, the mediocre and everything not praiseworthy. That’s a decision we have to make every day … every moment of every day. Those decisions get us a little closer to the Kingdom all the time.

Blessed are your eyes

Turning to the disciples in private he said,
“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
For I say to you,
many prophets and kings desired to see what you see,
but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

During my CPE experience, this was a quotation of Scripture that greatly consoled many of us. We saw a lot of nasty stuff in those days, but we also saw some things that were really holy. People who died after a wonderful old life, ready to go to the kingdom; families who rallied around a sick or injured member; spiritual growth in our fellow chaplain interns. It was a blessed time, and I think we always knew that, even in the crazy times.

How true that is in everyday life. We see a lot of things that we would rather not see, but if we are looking and attentive, we see a lot of God’s grace at work as well. And blessed are we to see it.

The question for me right now — as difficult as it is to be at seminary now with the grief of our tragedies and the craziness of the Apostolic Visitation — is what is it that I am seeing that blesses my eyes; what is it that I am hearing that blesses my ears? That will be the focus of my prayer in these days.

Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, pray for us.

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people:

It’s easy, I think, to distance ourselves from the point of the Gospel. We often think, well, I’m not one of the chief priests and elders, I’m a Christian, so I’m saved and I’m above reproach. But to do that does violence to the Gospel itself, and ignores the call to repentance that comes with Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God.

The point is that this call to repentance is for us. We are the chief priests and elders, and it’s our turn to hear the Gospel and react to its message. The point is that in Christ, God shows us sinners the way, as the psalmist proclaims:

Good and upright is the LORD;
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
and teaches the humble his way.

We, then, must follow the way to justice, lest we remain in our sin as the chief priests and elders:

When John came to you in the way of righteousness,
you did not believe him;
but tax collectors and prostitutes did.
Yet even when you saw that,
you did not later change your minds and believe him.

So may we too change our minds and believe, and follow in his way, that we may sing with the Apostle:

Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father!

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

“Going out about five o’clock,
the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,
‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’”

Often when I’m reading a familiar passage of scripture, some part of it will jump out at me which has never really struck me before. This week, the part shown above of the parable of the workers in the vineyard really got me. It got me because I think it’s perhaps the saddest part of the parable.

These who have been standing around idle all day may well be those who even at the eleventh hour have not yet had the Gospel preached to them. The parable tells us that our Lord pursues his children up until the very last minute, because He wills that all should be saved, and that all should be gathered in to the kingdom of heaven.

Indeed that kingdom of heaven is symbolized in this parable by the persistent landowner, who returns to find laborers at every moment of the day, who gives generously to all, and brings all to the same reward. We can take heart as the psalmist tells us, because that’s just how our God is:

Great is the LORD and highly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is good to all
and compassionate toward all his works.
The LORD is just in all his ways
and holy in all his works.
The LORD is near to all who call upon him,
to all who call upon him in truth.

24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

Harmoniae Euangelicae libri quator, 1540. Pitts Theological Library Digital Image Archive.

What an interesting reading to have had on September 11th. I think it’s so hard for us to even forgive the little things that happen in our personal lives. So then to be expected to forgive something as greivous as terrorist attacks on our country is really grasping for the impossible, it would seem.

The Church didn’t pull any dirty tricks putting this reading out there for Sunday. That’s what’s in the Lectionary for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, cycle A. It just so happens that corresponded to September 11th this year. But still in all, I don’t believe in coincidence; I believe in the work of the Holy Spirit who is clearly speaking, yelling to us in these readings!

Forgiveness was the major theme of Jesus’ ministry and mission, and so it has to be ours too. We must forgive each other from our hearts for the small and petty, and even for the ghastly and unconscionable. Have I done this yet? I’d have to say no. But the solution isn’t to abandon the pursuit of it as pie-in-the-sky. The solution is to take up the cross and forgive.

For truly “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion,” as the psalmist says. And we are expected to do likewise, lest we suffer the fate of the unforgiving servant in the Gospel reading. We, like him, are expected to forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts.