The Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Today’s readings

For each of the deadly sins, there is also a life-giving virtue.  Today, our readings focus on humility, which is the life-giving virtue that is the antidote to pride.  Of the seven deadly sins, pride is usually considered the original and the most serious of the sins.  Pride was the sin that caused the angel Lucifer to fall from grace to become the devil.  Pride was the sin that caused our first parents to reach for the forbidden fruit that was beyond them, all in an attempt to know everything God does.  A good examination of conscience would probably convince all of us that we suffer from pride from time to time, and sometimes even pervasively, in our own lives.  It’s what causes us to compare ourselves to others, to try to solve all our problems in ways that don’t include God, to be angry when everything does not go the way we would have it.  Pride, as the saying goes, and as Lucifer found out, doth indeed go before the fall, and when that happens in a person’s life, if it doesn’t break them in a way that  convinces them of their need for God, will very often send them into a tailspin of despair.  Pride is a particularly ugly thing.

Jesus tells us quite clearly today: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  But not many of us really seek to be humbled, do we?  When we think about humility, we might associate that with a kind of wimpiness.  As you think about humble people do you imagine breast-beating, pious souls who allow themselves to be the doormats for the more aggressive and ambitious? Humble people, we tend to think, don’t buck the system, they just say their prayers and, when they are inflicted with pain and suffering, they just “offer it up.”

But that’s not how Jesus sees it.  He doesn’t see humble people as wimpy or weak-minded.  He sees them as leaders: “The greatest among you,” he tells us, “must be your servant.”  So do you want to be a leader?  Do you want people to look up to you?  Well, if you do, you need to be a servant of others.  I talked in my homily last week about my friend Mike, who was the mechanic who humbly offered his service to those in need.  This weekend, we mourn the passing of our brother Marty Rock, a long time parishioner here at Notre Dame, who just this past summer, I clearly remember on his hands and knees repairing one of the pews in the church.  And he did that kind of thing all the time in his retirement years.  These were not wimpy men.  These were the kind of servant leaders that our Lord calls us all to be in today’s readings.

Today, we had our parish day of service.  The place was bustling with around 150 servant leaders who took time out of their day to help spruce up the church grounds and reach out to those in need.  They packed lunches for the homeless, made cookies for PADS, did yard work for some senior parishioners, washed the pews you’re sitting in right now, painted the rectory porch, collected food for the food pantry, and quite a bit more.

As we are in the middle of our stewardship campaign right now, this is a good time to reflect with humility on the many gifts that we have been given, both individually and as a community.  How can we make a return to God for all that he has given us?  How can we share the love that he pours out on us daily?  The best we can do is to look at our resources and realize, with humility, that they are all gifts from God.  And then pray to know how we can best return a portion of our time, talent, and treasure to God that he alone might be glorified in all things.

As I said, this attitude is counter-cultural.  We want the places of honor at banquets and wherever we go; that’s just human nature.  We may not wear phylacteries or tassels when we come in to worship, but we are pleased when someone notices how wonderful is something that we have done.  And Jesus would have nothing of all this.

I don’t really think that Jesus was saying there shouldn’t be people we call “father” or “teacher” or “master.”  I think Jesus knew well that the world needs leaders.  But the message here is that those leaders must be the servants of all.  And so we need to reflect on how willing we have been to be servants.  Have we reached out to the poor in some way?  Have we given adequately of our time, talent and treasure for the mission of the Church?

We can see how Jesus modeled leadership in his own life.  Indeed, he is not asking us to do something he was unwilling to do himself.  When he said, “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” he was in a way foreshadowing what would happen to him.  Humbling himself to take up our cross – our cross – he would be exalted in the glory of the resurrection.

The good news is that glory can be ours too, if we would humble ourselves and lay down our lives for others.  If we stop treating the people in our lives as stepping stones to something better, we might reach something better than we can find on our own.  If we humble ourselves to feed the poor and needy, to reach out to the marginalized and forgotten, we might be more open to the grace our Lord has in store for us in the kingdom of heaven.

At this Mass, we have been invited to a very important banquet, and we ourselves are completely unworthy of being here.  And I include myself in that statement.  Yet, through grace, through the love of our God, we have been given an exalted place at the banquet table.  Realizing how great the gift is and how unworthy of it we are is a very humbling experience.  In that humility, we are called to go out and feed those who need to know how much God loves them.

For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

Thursday of the Twenty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

People look to great leaders to be an example to them.  In theory, anyway, that’s how it’s supposed to work.  So it comes as no surprise, really, that those enforcing the apostasy wanted Mattathias and his sons to enthusiastically sacrifice to the pagan gods, according to the order of the king.  Because if Mattathias gave in to the apostasy, others would find it easy to do so also.  Then, they told him, he would be known as one of the king’s friends.

But Mattathias remembered where his leadership came from.  He knew that it was a gift from God, and that he as a leader could only do God’s work.  So he refuses to give up and give in, to go along with the king’s order, even to make a pretense of it so that they would get off his back.  Instead, he is consumed with zeal, and on seeing one of his countrymen giving in, strikes him dead on the spot and leads the righteous in the nation in rebellion.

Mattathias knew which king he wanted as his friend.  He knew that God alone was worthy of worship, and his Kingship was greater than the rule of a mere mortal man.  A leader needs to keep his or her priorities in order, and needs to know the source of the gifts he or she possesses.  Keeping focused on the One who is the giver of those gifts helps us to lead rightly, to the honor and glory of God.

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [B]

Today’s readings

You know, as a shepherd of souls, whenever I hear Jeremiah’s words, I am given more than just a little pause.  These words quite properly give me pause to think about the ways that I have led people – is this the way God would want it done, or have I scattered the sheep and driven them away.  It’s not a bad little examination of conscience for any of us, because in some ways we are all called to be leaders at one time or another in our lives.  Maybe we are leading our families, or leading others in our business, or leading at school or other activities.  We are all called upon to be good leaders when we’re in those positions, leaders who help others to know that they are special and loved and needed.

Today’s scriptures call us to look also at the people we have decided to follow as our leaders.  And I don’t think there’s any shortage of those who would lead us.  The problem for most of us is deciding which of the many voices out there we will choose to follow.  I think in some ways that’s a big project of our lives, the focus of our growing up.  Many of us would prefer to be “free spirits,” independent souls who don’t look to anyone for advice or instruction.  And that’s interesting except for the fact that it only goes so far.  None of us have ever waded through this life before, so we cannot claim to know how to do it right the first time out.  At some point, we have to look to someone else and claim those ideas as our own, which, of course, they aren’t.

So again, we’re back to square one.  Who are we going to follow, who will be our leader?  Our society gives us so many options.  We could pick “heroes” from the world of sports, or entertainment, and then eventually we find out their flaws and their worldview doesn’t really help us any.  We might pick wealthy CEOs or leaders of industry, but then money doesn’t buy happiness, as we quite often see in their own lives.  We may turn to self-help books or sites on the Internet, except that they very often make things seem way easier than they actually are.  We may even turn to people on television like Oprah, Dr. Phil, or – God help us – Martha Stewart.  But as wise as they may seem to be, they really don’t care about us personally.  They are content if we tune them in, increase their ratings, and buy from their advertisers.  They aren’t ever going to tell us anything their sponsors don’t want us to hear.

So we are pretty much in the same position as Jeremiah the prophet.  He was chastising those who were supposed to be in charge of shepherding the people, namely the monarchy.  The king and his court were responsible for the people, only time after time they proved that they were no more up to the challenge of being objective, compassionate shepherds than Martha Stewart is for us.  The problem wasn’t, and isn’t, a lack of leaders, but a lack of leaders who really care about the people they are leading.

And so it is the Gospel, of course, that gives us the answer to our quest today.  Jesus sees that the people are like “sheep without a shepherd” and he absolutely intends to fill that role for them.  His reaction could have been one of irritation.  Here his disciples had just returned from the missionary journey he sent them out on in last week’s Gospel, and he wants to have them come away to a quiet place, to rest, and debrief.  But they don’t even have that opportunity.  But seeing that they were lost without a shepherd to lead them, he isn’t irritated, instead he has pity on them.

Now let’s talk a bit about this word “pity.”  I think that word has all kinds of negative connotations for us.  Pity, when we hear about it, almost speaks of a kind of condescension, or at least a begrudging kind of granting of a favor.  But that’s clearly not the kind of pity that Jesus has on the crowd before him.  The Greek word that we translate as “pity” here is splanchnizomai.  Now I’m not a Greek scholar, so I’m not bringing this up to dazzle you with my command of New Testament Greek.  Instead I offer it because I think it helps us shed a little light on what this word really means. Splanchnizomai is an example of onomatopoeia, which, if you’re smarter than a fifth grader, you will remember means a kind of word that sounds like what it means.

Splanchnizomai has this kind of deep, guttural sound, which makes us think about a kind of deep, guttural reaction to something.  That’s the kind of pity Jesus has for the crowds, a deep, guttural compassion that wells up from deep inside him and makes him want to respond.  This is such a strong word in Greek that Mark only uses it in his Gospel to refer to Jesus, or to describe the feeling that Jesus is having.

So in today’s Gospel, Jesus has this kind of pity on those crowds who desperately were following him for lack of anyone to lead them.  They were sheep without a shepherd, and he would be that shepherd, choosing to shepherd them by teaching them “many things.”

This reaction of care and blessing answers the question of who exactly is the true shepherd. We cannot possibly miss it from today’s Scripture readings. If the monarchy of Jeremiah’s time had abandoned and misled the people, then Jesus in his time was all about bringing people back together and leading them to the Father. In another place, Jesus says that he is the way, the truth and the life, and the only way to the Father. He is the shepherd that the people have been longing for, all the way back to Jeremiah’s day and before.

Back in our own day, we have to come to see Jesus as our true shepherd also. We too, are like sheep without a shepherd at times. We have all sorts of trials in our lives. We struggle with finding the right spouse for marriage. We debate the best ways to raise our children. We agonize over the best neighborhoods in which to live and the choice of a school in which to educate our children. We struggle with the illness or death of those we love. We have problems at work, or lose a job. Life can often be uncertain at best, and we need direction to follow the right way. The good news is that Jesus has splanchnizomai for us too. He longs to gather us up, to teach us “many things,” and to lead us home to the Father. That’s the way it was always supposed to work in the first place.

The problem is that we are not exactly like sheep, are we? We have our own wills and we tend often to ignore the voice that’s leading us in the right direction. It’s long past time that we all followed Jesus to a deserted, out-of-the-way place and put our complete trust in his love and guidance. We might not be able to take a week-long retreat or find a desert in which to come to Jesus. But we can come here to Church, maybe more than just on Saturday or Sunday. We have available the great gift of daily Mass, and a church building that is open much of the day. We have the Sacrament of Reconciliation to help us to come back to Jesus and to receive the Church’s direction in our troubles. We have the Blessed Sacrament in our Tabernacle in the Chapel where we can pray and actually be in the physical presence of our Lord. Brothers and sisters in Christ, this parish church is our out-of-the-way place. This is the place where we can steal away even for just a few minutes in our hectic day and be one with the Lord. And even if we cannot come to church on a given day, maybe we can find the space in our homes to close the door and be alone with Jesus for a few minutes.

The important piece is that Jesus is our true shepherd. He is the only voice that has the splanchnizomai to lead us in the right direction, which is home to the Father. We must hear this and turn to Christ our shepherd with the words of the psalmist today: “My shepherd is the Lord; nothing indeed shall I want.”