The Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The Liturgy in these past summer months has been teaching us how to be disciples of Jesus.  Today, the readings give us another tool for the disciple, and that tool is forgiveness.  These readings come on the heels of what we heard last week, which was about the way the Christian disciple resolves conflict.  Forgiveness is the natural conclusion to that discussion.

In the Gospel, Peter wants the Lord to spell out the rule of thumb: how often must we forgive another person who has wronged us?  Peter offers what he thinks is magnanimous: seven times.  Seven times is a lot of forgiveness.  Think about it, how exasperated do we get when someone wrongs us over and over?  Seven times was more than the law required, so Peter felt like he was catching on to what Jesus required in living the Gospel.  But that’s not what Jesus was going for: he wanted a much more forgiving heart from his disciples: not seven times, but seventy-seven times!  Even if we take that number literally, which we shouldn’t, that’s more forgiveness than we can begin to imagine.  But the number here is just to represent something bigger than ourselves: constant forgiveness.

The parable that Jesus tells to illustrate the story is filled with interesting little details.  The servant in the story owes the master a huge amount of money.  Think of the biggest sum you can imagine someone owing another person and add a couple of zeroes to the end of it.  It’s that big.  He will never repay the master, no matter what efforts he puts forth or how long he lives.  So the master would be just in having him and everything he owned and everyone he cared about sold.  It still wouldn’t repay the debt, but it would be more than he would otherwise get.  But the servant pleads for mercy, and the master gives it.  In fact, he does more than he’s asked to do: he doesn’t just give the servant more time to pay, he forgives the entire loan!  That’s incredible mercy!

On the way home, however, the servant forgets about who he is: a sinner who has just been forgiven a huge debt, and he encounters another servant who owes him a much smaller sum than he owed the master – for us it would be like ten or twenty bucks.  But the servant has not learned to forgive as he has been forgiven: he hands the fellow servant over to be put into debtor’s prison until he can repay the loan.  But that in itself is a humorous little detail.  In prison, how is he going to repay the loan?  He can’t work, right?  So basically the fellow servant is condemned for the rest of his life.

We don’t have to do a lot of math or theological thinking to see the injustice here.  The servant has been forgiven something he could never repay, no matter how much time he lived.  But he was unwilling to give that same forgiveness to his fellow servant; he was unwilling to give him even a little more time to repay the loan, which the other servant certainly could have done.  That kind of injustice is something that allows a person to condemn him or herself for the rest of eternity.  The disciple is expected to learn to forgive and is expected to forgive as he or she has been forgiven.  “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  We can’t just say those words when we pray; we actually have to do it.

This call to a kind of heroic forgiveness takes on a new meaning when we consider the state of our world today.  We still have conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria, and in many other places.  In fact, I’ve read that as many as a third of the nations of the world are currently involved in some sort of conflict.  And we owe a great debt to those who are fighting to keep our nation safe.  But I don’t think we can stop with that.  We will never find the ultimate answer to terrorism and injustice in human endeavor.  We have to reach for something of more divine origin, and that something, I think, is the forgiveness that Jesus calls us to in today’s gospel.

And it starts with us.  We have been forgiven so much by God.  So how willing have we then been to forgive others?  Our reflection today might take us to the people or institutions that have wronged us in some way.  Can we forgive them?  Can we at least ask God for the grace to be forgiving?  I always tell people that forgiveness is a journey.  We might not be ready to forgive right now, but we can ask for the grace to be ready.  Jesus didn’t say it would be easy, did he?  But we have to stop sending people to debtor’s prison for the rest of their lives if we are going to honor the enormous freedom that God’s forgiveness has won for us.

Every time we forgive someone, every time we let go of an injustice that has been done to us, the world is that much more peaceful.  We may well always have war and the threat of terrorism with us.  But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.  That doesn’t mean we have to participate in it.  Real peace, real change, starts with us.  If we choose to forgive others, maybe our own corner of the world can be more just, more merciful.  And if we all did that, think of how our world could be significantly changed.

Reflections on the Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Friends, I wasn’t going to do a homily today since it’s my last day of vacation.  But I got a message from a friend who was troubled by the Gospel, and I realized it’s so commonly misunderstood that it can be troublesome.  So that said, I’ll just make a few important points.

First of all, let’s just agree that Jesus was always going to help the Canaanite woman’s daughter.  Probably even before the Canaanite woman asked.  He’s God, after all, and he knows our needs.  And we dare not accuse Jesus of being unchristian!  So some might tell you he did that to test her.  Well, that might be comforting if you love a God who has nothing better to do than test us and make us dance for him.  But that’s not our God.

Instead, I think he wanted the Canaanite woman’s faith to be noted by the people looking on, including the disciples, and perhaps even by the woman herself.  Because the Canaanites were a people that were presumed to be faithless and have no claim on the grace and mercy of God (as if any of us do!).  The Canaanites were the inhabitants of the Promised Land, which was given to the Israelites after being led of of Egypt by Moses.  So the disdain for them was long-standing by this point.

But Jesus notes her faith as opposed to the faith noted elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel.  In just a couple of chapters from now, Jesus will berate the “faithless generation” that included the scribes and Pharisees.  And just last week, Jesus chastised Peter for being “of little faith” when he pulled him up out of the water.  Contrast that with what he says about the Canaanite woman:  “O woman, great is your faith!”

All of this begs the question for us: where are we on the journey of faith.  For most of us, it probably depends on the day.  But are we bold enough of faith to implore God’s mercy when we have no claim on it?  When our sins have been dragging us down and we’ve been committing the same ones over and over?  When we aren’t where we think we should be in our lives?  When we feel like we’ve disappointed almost everyone?  When we’ve disappointed ourselves?

In those moments, are we of enough faith to call on the Lord and implore his mercy?  Because if we are, God is ready to answer us.

The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This week in my bulletin column, I have a reflection on the introductory rites of Mass.  But maybe in the homily, we can take a step back from that and think about what we’re supposed to do before Mass.  And what we do before Mass, and I mean before we even come to church, is live our life.  Because, as challenging as it is to worship when we’re here in church, it’s still way easier than worshipping out there in the world, isn’t it?

We may intend to work hard, and pray reflectively, but life sometimes – well, more than sometimes: often – throws us a curve ball and all our pious plans go out the window.  You know what I mean, right?  People at work don’t do what they’re supposed to.  Others in our family get into rough situations and test our patience.  Our commute is exacerbated by the pouring rain.  And it can go even deeper: news about a loved one’s illness, news about our own illness, and on and on.  And then we can slip up and fall into sin, that sin we have been praying hard to overcome and doing everything we can to avoid.  Our pious plans can turn into a very rough week indeed.  In among the blessings – and we have to admit, there are blessings – life can derail us and bring us to a frustrating place.

The good news is that our Liturgy of the Word speaks to that today, I think.  The wisdom writer in the first reading praises God who has the care of all, and who permits repentance for sins.  The Psalmist extols God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and fidelity.  Saint Paul tells the Romans, and us, that the Holy Spirit comes to our aid in our weakness, helping us to pray the right way, even praying in our stead when we cannot.  We need all that consolation when our week doesn’t go the way we hoped.

And we have the Gospel, which continues the theme of planting seeds that we heard last week.  Here we hear of the wisdom of God who allows the weeds to grow among the wheat and is wise enough to sort it all out at the harvest time.  This Gospel talks all about the Kingdom of God and what it will be like.  It will be like a tiny mustard seed that grows up to become a huge shrub.  It will be like a measure of yeast mixed with flour to become a loaf of bread.

Here are a couple of things I want us to take from this Gospel.  First, the Kingdom of God is now.  Jesus made it real, showing us that the kingdom is present in ordinary ways: a mustard seed, a measure of yeast.  He wants us to see that we don’t have to wait for a far-off distant Kingdom, but instead to live in the Kingdom now, where he is our King.

Second, the mustard seed, the yeast – that’s us.  We are the ones to make the Kingdom happen.  Jesus needs us to go out and proclaim the message, to witness to the presence of the Kingdom, to make people want to be part of it.  Our prayer, our love, our joy, all of that make it possible for people to come to know Christ.  The Kingdom of God is our true home; the rest of the world is just a travelling place.  When we live in the Kingdom here and now, we will be ready for the great coming of the Kingdom in heaven, where all will be made right and we will live forever with our God.

If we’ve had a less than stellar week, we need that good news, we need that Kingdom.   We need to know that God is patient, and forgiving, and allows us to come to maturity before there’s judgment.  We need to know there is mercy and forgiveness, and a Spirit that prays with us and for us in our weakness.  And we need to hear Jesus call us to be leaven in the world, even though we’re not perfect.  He needs us to work on changing sadness to hope, directing all eyes to the One who is our true King.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

I think most of the time, we really need to be reassured that we are in the hands of God.  Things here on earth can be pretty uncertain on a daily basis.  The state of the economy, wars being fought all over the globe, terrorism and natural disasters, the disrespect for human life, antagonism toward Christ-like values, all of this makes us feel pretty uncertain, at best.  Add to that the stuff that affects us directly: illness, death of a loved one, unemployment, family difficulties, our own sins – all of this may find us asking the question from time to time, “Where is God in all this?”

That’s why it’s so good to hear Jesus say today:

My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.

This does not, of course, mean that life is going to be easier for us, or that we won’t still be challenged in this world. But it does give us confidence that we are on the right track, and that our ways are being guarded.  With this confidence, we are expected then to be disciples.  We are expected to go forth and do what God asks of us, ministering to those in need, reaching out to the broken, preaching the Good News just by the way that we live our life.

We can live and preach the Gospel with confidence, we can be called Christians as our brothers and sisters in the first reading were for the first time, knowing that God has our back.  Whatever we may suffer in this life for the sake of Christ will more than be rewarded in the life to come.  And the good works we do here on earth, as small as they may seem to us in the face of such adversity, are never for nothing: God takes our efforts and makes them huge advances in the battle for souls.

Jesus says that the Father is greater than all, and that all of us, safe in the Father’s hands, can never be taken from him.  Praise God for his providence and mercy and protection today.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

There’s a lot of talk about water in these readings today, and when that happens, we know that it means the talk is really about baptism.  We ourselves are the sick and lame man who needed Jesus’ help to get into the waters of Bethesda.  The name “Bethesda” means “house of mercy” in Hebrew, and that, of course, is a symbol of the Church.  We see the Church also in the temple in the first reading, from which waters flow which refresh and nourish the surrounding countryside.  These, of course, again are the waters of baptism.  Lent calls us to renew ourselves in baptism.  We are called to enter, once again, those waters that heal our bodies and our souls.  We are called to drink deep of the grace of God so that we can go forth and refresh the world.

But what really stands out in this Gospel is the mercy of Jesus.  I think it’s summed up in one statement that maybe we might not catch as merciful at first: “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.”  It’s hard to imagine being ill for thirty-eight years, but I’m pretty sure missing out on the kingdom of God would be that one, much worse, thing.  There is mercy in being called to repentance, which renews us in our baptismal commitments and makes us fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-36 | Psalm 27 | Matthew 5:13-16

During this time of year, there’s a lot more darkness than I’m sure most of us would like to see. The daylight fades very fast, and there’s a lot of cold and cloudy days. And so, as joyful as this season is supposed to be, it can be so hard for many people. And then there’s the thought of another year coming to an end: some people look back on the year, and they lament what could have been, or what actually has been. And we could probably do without all the news of war, crime and terrorism here and abroad. So if we feel a little dark right now, we’re not alone.

But the struggle between light and darkness is what Advent is all about. The season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, sure, but more than that the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts. This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.

In Advent, God meets all that darkness head-on. We don’t cower in the darkness; neither do we try to cover over the light. Instead we put the lamp on a lampstand and shine the light into every dark corner of our lives and our world. Isaiah prophesies about this Advent of light: “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times greater [like the light of seven days].” This is a light that changes everything. It doesn’t just expose what’s imperfect and cause shame, instead it burns the light of God’s salvation into everything and everyone it illumines, making all things new.

Our Church makes the light present in many ways – indeed, it is the whole purpose of the Church to shine a bright beacon of hope into a dark and lonely world. We do that symbolically with the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath which represents the world becoming lighter and lighter as we approach the birthday of our Savior. But the Church doesn’t leave it simply in the realm of symbol or theory. We are here tonight to take on that darkness and shine the light of Christ into every murky corner of our lives. The Sacrament of Penance reconciles us with those we have wronged, reconciles us with the Church, and reconciles us most importantly with our God. The darkness of broken relationships is completely banished with the Church’s words of absolution. Just like the Advent calendars we’ve all had reveal more and more with every door we open, so the Sacrament of Penance brings Christ to fuller view within us whenever we let the light of that sacrament illumine our darkness.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight. We receive the light by being open to it and accepting it, tonight in a sacramental way. Tonight, as we did at our baptism, we reject the darkness of sin and we “look east” as the hymn says, to accept the light of Christ which would dawn in our hearts. Tonight we lay before our God everything that is broken in us, we hold up all of our darkness to be illumined by the light of God’s healing mercy.

Tonight, our sacrament disperses the gloomy clouds of our sin and disperses the dark shadows of death that lurk within us. The darkness in and around us is no match for the light of Christ. As we approach Christmas, that light is ever nearer. Jesus is, as the Gospel of John tells us, “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Monday of the Thirty-second Week of Ordinary Time 

Today’s readings

“Increase our faith,” indeed! How often have you had that same reaction to the marvels of God happening in your life? I think about the many times I have had the Spirit point out something I should have seen all along because it was right there in front of my face. Increase my faith, I pray.

Because, as Jesus tells us today, there are many things that cause sin, and they will inevitably happen. But how horrible to be tangled up in them, right? Whether we’ve caused the occasion for sin, or have been the victim of it, what a tangled mess it is for us. Maybe we have made someone so angry that their response was sinful. Or perhaps we have neglected to offer help where it was needed and caused another person to find what they need in sinful ways. Or maybe we’ve said something scandalous or gossiped about another person and those who have overheard it have been brought to a lower place. None of that makes anyone involved happy; everyone ends up deficient in faith, hope and love in some way. The same is true if we were the ones to have fallen into the trap of an occasion of sin. Don’t we just want to kick ourselves then? 

This is what the Psalmist was talking about when he prayed, “Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.” Because when we are tangled up in sin, or brought low by suffering of some kind, we would do well to long for a glimpse of our Lord’s beautiful face. And God hears those words and answers them, because we can never fall so far that we are out of God’s reach. Listen to some more of the Psalmist’s excellent words today: 

Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD? 

or who may stand in his holy place? 

He whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean,

who desires not what is vain. 

Increase our faith, Lord, for we are the people that longs to see your face