There are a lot of pitfalls on the road through our spiritual lives. We ourselves experience that all the time. Making our confessions, we have a firm purpose of amendment, but it seems like the devil knows that, and so we barely make it to the parking lot and there’s a new temptation or frustration. Those pitfalls in the spiritual life are many, and frequent, and exasperating at times.
Jesus said it would be so. Listen to what he says in the Gospel reading again:
The Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man
who sowed good seed in his field.
While everyone was asleep his enemy came
and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.
Did you catch that? The Kingdom of heaven will be like that. It will be planted with good seed, but the enemy will sow weeds. That’s still the Kingdom of heaven. So when we are frustrated by the pitfalls we encounter, we can at least take some relative comfort in that our Savior said it would be like that, and we’re still in the Kingdom of heaven.
But what we can’t do is accept that to the point that we decide we can participate in it and still be forgiven. We can’t love our sins and expect God to save us. That’s called presumption, and it too is a sin, and a pitfall in the spiritual life. Presumption is what was going on in our first reading this morning. Jeremiah calls the people out on their practices of worshipping and then as soon as they leave, sinning gravely. He tells them they can’t murder, commit adultery, and worship false gods only to say, “We are safe; we can commit all these abominations again.” God is a God of justice; he sees that kind of nonsense and calls it what it is.
So here’s the take away. Yes, there will be pitfalls in the spiritual life. But when we run into them, it doesn’t mean we’re not still in the Kingdom of heaven. What we have to do is call them what they are, repent, reform our lives, and call on God’s mercy. But we can’t presume God’s mercy so that we give ourselves permission to sin. We have to love God more than our sins; love eternity more than today’s passing pleasures. We have to be like the Psalmist today who recognizes the pitfalls and cries out:
My soul yearns and pines
for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and my flesh
cry out for the living God.
So here’s one of those occasions when we have what seems to be a pretty odd parable in the Gospel reading. It’s a story that challenges our notion of who Jesus is and what he was about – it almost seems in this story that he’s being “un-Jesus-like” or even unchristian in the story. But bookmark that for a second. I always maintain that when a Scripture gets us riled up, then God is trying to tell us something important, and I definitely thing that’s what’s going on here.
So, 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 rather drawn-out affair, beginning with the betrothal. After that, the couple was basically 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, complete with feasting and flowing wine and all the rest.
So the parable we have in today’s Gospel puts us in the moment of time just as the negotiations are complete and they are expecting the bridegroom to go to the bride’s house. The virgins are there ready to begin the great feast, but the bridegroom is delayed a bit, and they all fall asleep. However, that is not the problem. The problem is that half of them were unprepared.
And here I think is the point that gets us riled up a bit. I think we bristle at the whole notion of 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. What kind of oil is he really talking about? 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 astounds 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 to bring 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), this is a very good time to take a look back and see how well we have filled our flasks in the last year. Have we been zealous to attend to our spiritual lives? Have we been careful to be sure we have received the Sacrament of Penance on a regular basis? Do we take time to reflect on our relationship with God and try our best to live our lives as we have been called? Have we even thought about what our calling is at this stage of our lives? Are we, at this point in life’s journey, walking with our Lord through good times and bad? Or have we veered off the path, in search of inferior oil with which to fill our flasks? Have we been content with oil that does not burn brightly and which runs out just when we need it?
If that’s where we have found ourselves this year, then we have some work to do in the coming weeks. As we wind up this year and begin the next, we need to steadfastly resolve to fill our flasks to overflowing with the oil of salvation 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.
One of the great obstacles to the spiritual life is when we come to believe that we ourselves have all the answers. When that happens, we may often hold to relative truth, even if we wouldn’t say that we do. Or perhaps we insist on acting according to our opinions, instead of acting on consciences formed by Truth. You’ve heard it before, when having a conversation about a moral issue. People might say, “well I think…” whatever, as if that were the gold standard of morality and truth.
It’s cold comfort to see, in our gospel reading this morning, that we aren’t alone. Jesus’ generation was much the same. John the Baptist came across too strict, and Jesus came across like a drunkard and a partier. But the real problem was that they both proclaimed the truth; Jesus, obviously even stronger than John. But the crowds dismissed them both, because both required them to change their lives and their ways of thinking. If John and Jesus were right, then they weren’t, and that was unsettling.
It’s unsettling for us too, but we have the benefit of centuries of Church teaching to help us. And so we are called to leave behind our own opinions and think with the grace of Truth. It’s time that we considered that perhaps our own point of view isn’t the be-all and end-all of wisdom. Advent is about dispersing the darkness with the light of Christ, and the light of his Truth. The psalmist said it best: “Those who follow you, Lord, will have the light of life.”
“What do you want me to do for you?”
I think that is perhaps the important question in the spiritual life. In fact, when I begin working with someone for spiritual direction, I usually have them spend some time reflecting on this Gospel reading. When I myself go on retreat, I reflect on it too. Because unless we’re clear about what we want God to do for us, we won’t ever see any change in our spiritual lives.
I think that question – “What do you want me to do for you?” – is especially important in our world today. Too many people don’t think God does do or can do very much in our world today. We in particular are from a society that prizes its independence and can-do spirit, and so that starts to seep into our spiritual lives. Or perhaps we don’t think we should bother God by asking for what we truly need, as if he had better things to do than deal with us. Let’s be clear: he made us in his image and likeness, breathed us into life, and so he certainly has concern for our welfare.
But maybe the most prevalent reason people don’t ask enough from God is that they don’t think about him very often. Maybe as a last resort, yes, but not so much that there is that ongoing conversation and relationship with God which enables us to ask whatever we need in his name and trust we can get it, as Jesus famously promised.
Honestly, I’ve struggled with this question at various times in my own life. Because to really answer that question, you have to get over the struggle of asking for what you think he wants to hear. You have to get past the embarrassment of asking for something you think you should be able to get all on your own. You have to truly acknowledge where you are in your relationship with him, and ask for what you need. It’s not easy, but it’s a question we should ask ourselves often.
We’re coming to the end of the Church year. We’ve lived another year in his grace. It’s time for us to reflect on where we are, how far we’ve come, and what we still need.
What do you want Jesus to do for you?
I think a lot of us can identify with what’s going on in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus and the Twelve had been working hard: they had just been out on mission, proclaiming the Gospel and the Kingdom of God, and healing the sick. They were busy, they were tired, but they were excited. Jesus calls them together to go to an out-of-the-way place to rest a while, maybe have something to eat. But as soon as they arrive, they find that the crowds figured it out and got there ahead of them.
If you’re a parent, that might sound familiar. When’s the last time you had a minute to yourself, only to find out that the children have figured out where you were and needed something right now? Or at work, you finally have five minutes to take care of your own work, only to have a coworker come and ask for help with something they are doing? We know the experience. Responsibility for whatever we are charged with never really ends. We have so many things to do, we don’t have time for ourselves, for our spiritual lives, for those things that are ultimately important.
And Jesus doesn’t want it to be so. He wants to shepherd all of us to an out-of-the-way place to rest a while, to rest in him. He wants to feed all of us with the best of food: his own Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, that we might have strength to take care of the crowds clamoring around us for our attention.
So we have to let him. We have to give him five minutes of our day, if we haven’t been giving him anything at all. We have to give him a little more now, so that he can use that space to help us rest a while, to refuel, to recharge, to grow and become more. It won’t be easy. If we can’t find five minutes for ourselves, it’s going to be hard to find five minutes for Jesus. But it is possible. Maybe it’s too much at the end of the day when we’re dog tired. But maybe we can get up five minutes earlier just to read a verse of Scripture and put ourselves in the presence of our Lord for the day.
Jesus can do a lot with five minutes. In these hot days of summer, those five minutes can be the refreshment we need to move forward in our relationship with God and with the people in our lives. They can help us to not be resentful of what we’re called to do for others. They can help us to give more than we think we can. They can help us in good times and in bad. Give him five minutes, go to an out-of-the-way place to rest a while.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
to where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear;
though as for that, the passing there
had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
in leaves no feet had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.
This poem, as you may recognize, is “The Road Less Traveled,” by Robert Frost, and it was always one of my favorites. Today’s readings speak, more or less, to the same sentiment, but with a more radical and crucial twist. Frost’s opinion is that both roads are equally valid, he simply chooses to take the one most people don’t. But the Gospel tells us that there really is only the one valid path, and that certainly is the road less traveled. We commonly call it the Way of the Cross.
Moses makes it clear: he sets before the people life and death, and then begs them to choose life. Choosing life, for the Christian, means going down that less traveled Way of the Cross, a road that is hard and filled with pitfalls. And maybe the real problem is that there is a choice. Wouldn’t it be great if we only had the one way set before us and no matter how hard it would be, that was all we could choose? But God has given us freedom and wants us to follow that Way of the Cross in freedom, because that’s the only way that leads to life; the only way that leads to him.
Our Psalmist says it well today:
Blessed the one who follows not
the counsel of the wicked
Nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.
What are you looking for?
That’s the question Jesus asks us today, and it’s a good one. For the disciples who were checking him out, I think it took them aback somewhat. They weren’t expecting that and they honestly didn’t have a ready answer. So instead they do what Jesus usually does and they answer the question with another question! “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And very cryptically, Jesus answers by saying, “Come and you will see.” That’s a wonderful line, so bookmark it for just a second.
Here we are, essentially just beginning the regular part of the new year of the Church. We’ve been through the Christmas season, we’ve celebrated Epiphany, Jesus has been baptized in the River Jordan by his cousin Saint John the Baptist, and now it’s time to get on with the ministry he came to do. So as he moves on, he begins to attract disciples, particularly those who had been followers of Saint John the Baptist. Most likely, they were there when Jesus was baptized and they experienced the wonders of that moment: when the Father spoke from the heavens and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. My guess is they would have wanted to get to know Jesus a little better.
And so that’s what brings them to the place we are today. Where are you staying? Come and you will see. And see they do. They recruit Simon Peter, and he joins the group. Together they will see the sick healed, the paralyzed get up and walk, the leprous cleaned, the possessed set free. They will see thousands fed by a few loaves and fish. They will witness the raising of the dead, and see Jesus’ transfiguration. But they won’t just see glory, will they? They will see suffering and death, and will then see resurrection. After that, they will see what Jesus saw in them – their ability to become the Church and spread the Gospel.
I wonder how much of that would have answered the question, “What are you looking for?” Probably none of it, really. Just like they had no idea how to answer Jesus’ question, they had no idea what to expect from their relationship with him. They really did have to take him up on his invitation to “Come and see.”
Which is where we are today, on this first, “ordinary” Sunday of the Church year. And I’m going to ask you all to pray over this in the week ahead: “What are you looking for?” What do you hope to see? What are your dreams for your spiritual life? How would you want God to work in your life right now?
For me, I’m looking forward to seeing Chris Lankford ordained to the Diaconate, the last step before his priestly ordination next year. I’m looking forward to seeing how some of our ministries develop, the fruits of adding some programs to our school, the continued growth of our parish council. I’m looking forward to baptizing an adult at our Easter Vigil this year, along with Confirming and giving First Eucharist to two other candidates. I’m looking forward to celebrating several marriages this year, along with 90 First Communions and 60 or so Confirmations. I’m looking forward to seeing how God will continue to work in my life and develop my ministry. But I know it won’t all be glory: I’ll have to celebrate funerals and say goodbye to some wonderful people. I’ll have to make hard decisions about our budget and prioritize ministries. Just like all of your families, there are tough decisions to be made in the running of a parish.
But I wouldn’t change it for the world. And I look forward to the journey. Sometimes things might not happen fast enough for my liking, or maybe they won’t happen in the way I would choose, but I know that along the way, I’ll see more of God’s grace, and that’s worth the ride all in itself.
So I’ll put this back in your court again: What are you looking for? Whatever it is, Jesus answers, “Come, and you will see.”
Some days, I think there isn’t much I would do for just five minutes of peace and quiet.
If you’re a parent, maybe you’d amend that to longing for just five seconds of peace and quiet! We are all probably sadly familiar with the many loud distractions our world puts before us. And we’ve become conditioned to accepting it, even needing it on some primitive level, I think. I’ve been to many a parish meeting where, when we are praying, someone jumps in to fill a moment of silence, when silence would have been good for all of us. And don’t we often get out of bed and flip on the radio or television right away, or check our text messages or email before our feet even hit the floor? I know I’m guilty of that. There’s a whole lot of noise out there and it’s become so that we are very uncomfortable with any kind of quiet.
And the noise doesn’t lead us anywhere good. The Psalmist talks about walking through death’s dark valley. I think some of the noise out there resembles that dark valley pretty closely. There are voices out there tempting us to all sorts of evil places: addictions, selfishness; pursuit of wealth, prestige, or power. Those same voices call us to turn away from the needy, from family, God and the Church. Those same voices tell us that we are doing just fine on our own, that we don’t need anyone else to make us whole, that we are good enough to accomplish anything worthwhile all by ourselves. And those voices are wrong, dead wrong.
Those are the voices of those Jesus mentions in the Gospel who circumvent the gate and come to “steal and slaughter and destroy.” The frightening thing is, we have become so used to these distracting voices that we have turned away from God, turned away from the Savior we so desperately need, and have been led astray. That’s the heart of why our pews aren’t filled, why people call themselves “spiritual but not religious”, why the likes of Oprah and Doctor Phil have become so popular in this day and age.
So maybe we have to become a little more like sheep. And I don’t mean that in the sense of cultivating blind obedience. Because, as it turns out, sheep aren’t as dumb as we often think of them. Here’s the backstory on today’s Gospel image of the sheep, the shepherd, and the sheepfold: In Jesus’ day, the shepherds would gather several flocks in the same fenced-enclosure. The sheepfold might be constructed in a pasture using brush and sticks; or, it would adjoin a wall of a house and have makeshift walls for the other sides. Owners of small flocks of sheep would have combined them in the secure enclosure at night. Someone – the gatekeeper – would then guard the flocks. The “gate” would have been a simple entrance, but the gatekeeper might even stretch out across the opening and literally be the “gate.” The shepherds would arrive early in the morning and be admitted by the gatekeeper. They would call out to their sheep and the members of the flock recognize the voice of their own shepherd, and that shepherd would “lead them out.” The shepherd then walks in front of the flock and they follow. (Jude Sicilliano, OP)
We, like the sheep, have to cultivate the silence and the ability to hear our shepherd’s voice and follow him, being led to green pastures, and not be distracted by all the noise out there. As we rediscovered during Lent, we are a people in great need of a Savior, of the Good Shepherd. We desperately need the guidance of the one who leads us to eternity, laying down his own life to keep us out of the eternal clutches of sin and death. Jesus came into this world and gave himself so that we might “have life and have it more abundantly.”
Here’s a way to pray with this in the coming week. Take five minutes, or even just five seconds if that’s all you can find, and consciously turn off the noise: whether it’s the physical noise of the television or radio, or the internal noise of distractions in your head. And then reflect on what voices are out there distracting you from hearing the voice of your Good Shepherd. Ask the Good Shepherd to help you tune them out so that you can more readily discern his voice and follow the right path.
The women in today’s Liturgy of the Word give us contrasting views of the spiritual life. In our first reading, the women give us the example of what not to do. Solomon, known for his wisdom and dedication to God by building the temple, is soon seduced by the foreign women he had married to abandon God. They entice him to abandon the worship of the one, true God in order to worship and adore their so-called gods.
Marrying into the families of the foreigners among them was a real problem for the Israelites. God had forbidden them to do so, and when they did this, they were soon led astray and picked up the pagan customs of the world around them. It’s kind of a metaphor for what can go wrong in our spiritual lives. If we keep our eyes on Christ and follow the way he has laid out for us, we can progress in our devotion. But the minute we start looking at other things, we can soon be distracted from the straight and narrow.
On the other hand, we have the wonderful Syrophoenician woman in the Gospel. She knows exactly where to look for salvation and she persists in it. When it seemed that Jesus was not interested in helping her daughter, she persisted because she knew that Christ alone could heal her daughter and expel the demon.
Once again, there’s a deeper message here. I don’t think any of us believes that Jesus wasn’t interested in healing the woman’s daughter. I just think he knew her faith and wanted to give those who were in the house where he was to see that faith. The story gives us, too, the opportunity to asses our own faith in God, not looking to other things or foreign gods to bring us salvation. If these women teach us anything in today’s readings, it’s that we need to be focused on our God alone.