Third Sunday of Ordinary Time – Respect Life

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy of the Word is kind of a homily about the Liturgy of the Word.  We hear in the readings about how powerful the Word of God is, and what an important part of our lives hearing those words is for those who believe.  Our first reading and our gospel reading both show moments where the word is proclaimed.

In the first reading, the people are returning from a disastrous exile in Babylon.  Because they had not previously acted on God’s word, the Babylonians overtook them, and the cream of their population was carted off to exile.  The religious and political leaders, the learned teachers, the strong soldiers, all of these were taken from their midst.  So today’s reading finds them on the other side of that event: they are returning and beginning to think about the daunting task of rebuilding their society and its infrastructure.  They pause at the beginning of that to remind themselves of the words of Scripture that had been so important to them.

The gospel reading finds the Israelites at a much later time, obviously, a time where the Temple had been destroyed.  In order to preserve their religion, the practice of meeting in synagogues had come about.  There, the words of Scripture would be read, and someone would give an interpretation of those words.  This time the proclaimer and interpreter is Jesus himself.

What is common in these two readings is that each of them shows us three Scriptural moments. In the first moment, the Word is proclaimed. Second, that Word has an effect on its hearers. Finally, the Word is fulfilled. So first, the Word is proclaimed. In the first reading, Ezra the priest reads from the scroll from daybreak to midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand. It was quite the proclamation, and also included a kind of homily, apparently, since the reading tells us that Ezra provided an interpretation. This went on most of the day, I might add, so don’t complain if my homily is more than nine minutes!  The second time we see this is in the Gospel reading. Jesus takes the scroll of the law, and finds a particular passage from the prophet Isaiah and proclaims it. He too provides an interpretation, in the form of his very life.

The second Scriptural moment is the Word’s effect on its hearers. For Ezra, the Word produced a very emotional response. The people bowed down in the presence of the Word, and began to weep. The weeping is presumably because, hearing the Word, they realized how far they were from keeping its commandments, and remembered that not following those commandments is what cast them into exile. Ezra then instructs them not to weep, but instead to rejoice and celebrate, because the proclamation of the Word on this holy day was an occasion for great joy. We don’t get any idea of how the rest of the congregation at the synagogue reacted to Jesus’ proclamation of Isaiah, but one would think that it would have been a pretty tame reaction until he announced that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy. Then we can imagine they had a lot to say and a perhaps indignant reaction.

Finally, the Word is fulfilled. Jesus’ instruction in the Gospel that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled in the synagogue-goers hearing tells us that Word is never intended to be a static thing. The words of Scripture than made the Israelite’s weep in Nehemiah and Ezra’s day are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ and continue to be fulfilled in our own day.  We do not just passively sit through the proclamation of the Word, nod our heads, and move on to the Eucharist. The Word is a living thing and it is intended to have an effect on its hearers. Indeed, the Word is always intended to be fulfilled, and that fulfillment began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his person, all of the promises of the Old Testament are brought into being, and the real hope of the world begins.

The Word of God, we are told, is a living and active thing.  The Word leads us to a certain way of life, a belief that God is among us, and that he gifts us overwhelmingly every single day of our lives.  This time each year, we pause to be reminded particularly of the gift of life.  Perhaps we might find ourselves of the same mind as the Israelites who wept when they considered how far they had been from keeping God’s law.  The same could be said of our own society, which seems to value life less and less all the time.  Against this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.” (CCC, 2258)

This past Friday was the 37th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that in effect legalized abortion in the United States.  The Church teaches us that abortion is a violation of the fifth commandment, which states: “Thou shall not kill.”  Participation in an abortion – which includes having one, paying for one, encouraging one, performing one, and helping in the performance of one – is a mortal sin.  Because we oppose abortion, we as a Church are committed to making alternatives to abortion more available, including adoption, financial assistance to parents and especially mothers in need, and education about the sanctity of life.

Since 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, our society has tumbled down the slippery slope of devaluing life and we are seeing the rotten fruits of it all over. War, violence, hatred, lack of concern for the poor and needy, lack of respect for the elderly and terminally ill, all of these things are symptoms of the culture of death that surrounds us. Far from liberating women and giving them choice over the use of their bodies, the legalization of abortion has driven many women to have an abortion simply because they thought that was their only option or because it was more convenient for family or the father.

But respecting life goes beyond merely opposing abortion.  Our Church teaches us that we cannot claim to be Pro Life if we are in fact only anti-abortion. Our claim to righteousness has to be based on more than never having had the disastrous occasion of having to choose to participate in an abortion, or it’s not really righteousness at all. If we pray to end abortion and then do not attend to our obligation to the poor, or if we choose to support the death penalty, or if we engage in racial bigotry, then we are not in fact Pro Life. Every life, every life, every life is sacred, no matter what we may think of it.  It’s sacred because God created that life after his very own image and likeness.

And I say all this not because I don’t think that abortion is anything short of a disaster: it most certainly is.  Abortion ends the life of a child, it ruins the lives of everyone involved, it damages society in ways we may never fully know.  I say this because it’s way too easy for us to oppose abortion and then call ourselves Pro Life and then go out and violate life in some other circumstance. We must be very careful of doing that, because not being completely Pro Life weakens our witness to the sanctity of life.  The world is watching us closely.  And we absolutely cannot be at all weak in our witness for life: our society needs our strength and passion for life so that there can be conversion and change and unity and peace.

The Word of God continues to be proclaimed, to have an effect on us who hear it, and to be fulfilled in our hearing.  Our witness for life is an important way that the Word is fulfilled in our own day.  The Scriptures tell us that the culture of death doesn’t get the last word – God does, life does.  And for that, as Ezra exhorted the Israelites, we should rejoice.

Thursday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The Israelites wandering in the desert would seem to have had the spiritual life easy. How could they possibly miss God’s presence? There was a cloud to lead them to the Lord by day, and fire by night. But just like the stuff that ended up in the net in today’s Gospel, some people got it and some people didn’t.

The same is true for us. How hard can it be for us to see the Lord’s presence in our own lives?  Even now, some people get it and some people don’t.  And more than that, even the faithful among us sometimes get it and sometimes don’t.  I often think it would be good to have something as hard to miss as a column of cloud or fire to keep me on the straight and narrow.  Well, in a way – a much better way, actually –  we do: we have the Church, the Sacraments, and the Word of God, prayer that beckons us by day and by night. But even that doesn’t always light the way for us.  There are so many distractions.

The issue is urgent.  The Kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells us today, will be like the fishmongers sorting out the fish from the seaborne refuse.  We don’t want to get thrown out with all that vile stuff.  So, may God lead us all to be among those who get it, those who follow the way marked out for us. After all, we have something way better than clouds by day and fire by night, don’t we?

Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

If I put my mind to it, I suppose I could think of dozens of times when someone with more wisdom than I told me something I wasn’t willing to hear.  Had I been open to those messages, things would have turned out differently – better, maybe – than they did.  How often have we been unwilling to listen to parents, teachers, or others in authority?  How often have we refused to listen to them because we were sure of our own wisdom?  This is not the model God has for our lives.  This is the real reason, I think, for the fourth commandment: honor your father and your mother.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us, “The fourth commandment is addressed expressly to children in their relationship to their father and mother, because this relationship is the most universal. It likewise concerns the ties of kinship between members of the extended family. It requires honor, affection, and gratitude toward elders and ancestors. Finally, it extends to the duties of pupils to teachers, employees to employers, subordinates to leaders, citizens to their country, and to those who administer or govern it.

“This commandment includes and presupposes the duties of parents, instructors, teachers, leaders, magistrates, those who govern, all who exercise authority over others or over a community of persons.” (CCC, 2199)  The fourth commandment recognizes that God speaks to us through others, and we have a duty to listen to that voice.  St. Paul reminds us that this commandment carries with it a promise of blessing: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” (Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16)

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

In today’s first reading, Moses promises that God would send a prophet like himself and the people would listen to that prophet.  We know that God raised up prophets all through the history of the people of Israel.  The Old Testament gives us the words of some of those prophets, and each of them spoke not on their own authority, but spoke the words of God himself.  They would begin their prophesies with the words “Thus says the Lord…”

But we know that in the fullness of time, God raised up Jesus to be the fulfillment of prophecy and the answer to every longing of the human heart.  The words Jesus spoke were words of authority.  He didn’t need to say “thus says the Lord…”  Instead Jesus would say, “I say to you…”

Today’s Gospel shows us a little vignette about the teachings of Jesus.  He is teaching in the synagogue and people are impressed with what he says.  But to underscore it all perhaps, Jesus performs and exorcism.  Interestingly enough, the unclean spirit knows who Jesus is – it says, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  I think it’s intensely interesting that the unclean spirits recognize Jesus right away. That’s not always true of the people in Jesus’ time, particularly not true of the religious leaders of the day.  And, honestly, it’s not always true of us, is it?  How slow we can be to recognize and hear what Jesus is saying to us.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

These words that I have been quoting from today’s Psalm response are loaded with meaning.  I want to look at it in two parts.  First, “If today you hear his voice…”  Now, if we’re not really careful, we could come away from that thinking that God doesn’t speak to us very often.  It’s almost as if we have to be constantly on the lookout for some word of God that may come once in a blue moon.  But that’s not it at all.  I am totally convinced that God is speaking to us all the time.  I often use the example of a radio program.  The radio station is broadcasting 24/7, but if we don’t have a radio turned on, we don’t hear it.  But just because we don’t hear it doesn’t mean there’s no broadcast, right?  We’re just not tuned in.  I think that God speaks to us all the time, and the “if” part of the Psalmist’s words refers to the fickleness of the human heart, not the fickleness of God’s revelation to us.  We have to tune in if we are to hear the word of God today.

And why would we choose not to tune in?  Maybe it’s because we’re tired and cannot hear just one more piece of advice.  Or perhaps we are busy and don’t have time to make to hear God’s word and act on it.  Or, we may even be so convinced of our own wisdom, that in our pride we block out the voice of God however it may come to us.  The fathers and mothers of the church have long written that this is the greatest sin that one could ever commit.  We might think of lots of things that seem worse, but in the big picture, they don’t even come close not hearing the word of God.  When we think that we can handle everything on our own, when we become God for ourselves, we put ourselves beyond the reach of God’s mercy in ways that we might never be able to heal.  God forbid that we would choose not to hear his voice.

The second part of the Psalmist’s prayer is “harden not your hearts.”  Hearing the word of God obviously requires a response.  I suppose that upon hearing God’s word, one could simply ignore it and keep on living their lives the way they’re doing it and have been doing it all along.  Lots of people do that, in fact.  But even this “non-response” is a response to God’s word – in fact it’s a rejection of it.  It’s the sin of pride that says we’re too busy to hear God’s word, too exhausted to consider it, or too sure of our own wisdom to need it.  This is what it means to harden our hearts; this is the sinful response I spoke of earlier.

But for the disciple, the believer, this non-response is not an option.  Hearing the word of God changes us, it brings us along the path of our spiritual life, closer to God.  Maybe God’s word will require a big change in our lives, something like a career change, or taking on our true vocation, or committing to a new ministry at church.  God does call us in those ways at times.  But sometimes God’s word is less momentous, more of a correction or a gentle nudge in a different direction.  Maybe it’s the moment that helps us to realize we’ve sinned.  Or perhaps an inspiration to offer a kindness to another person, or pick up the Scriptures and read them, or even just that moment that we think of someone in our lives and feel like they need our prayers right now.  All of these are changes for us, and help bring us closer to Jesus.

And the truth is, day in and day out, we’re going to take a couple steps forward, and then maybe a step back.  Sin is the obstacle to truly hearing the voice of God and not hardening our hearts.  But it’s grace that keeps us on the path, encourages us to keep those radios tuned in, listening for the word of God and accepting that word with softened hearts and willing spirits.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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One of the things I sometimes struggle with, and maybe some of you do too, is that I am often tempted to eat the wrong things.  Somehow, if I’m watching TV or something, I get an urge to eat some kind of snack that is not only not very nutritious but also not all that satisfying.  In the vast scheme of culinary delights, Doritos or potato chips of course don’t rank very high, yet somehow I find myself tempted by them all the time!

 

I think there’s a parallel to that in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  Jesus knew the disciples could easily be tempted by the “leaven” of the Pharisees and of Herod.  He meant the paltry doctrine they taught and the less-than-satisfying way of life they offered.  They wanted people to take on a legalistic view of Scripture, living the Torah very literally but not very deeply.  Instead, Jesus offered a much more satisfying bread: a life lived deeply rooted in the Gospel, a life that went beyond legalism in favor of diving head first into compassion, concern for the poor and vulnerable, and love for every person that crosses their paths.

 

The leaven Jesus was talking about had nothing to do with the bread for the journey that they forgot to bring.  Instead, he offered a bread for the journey that was his very body and blood, his own self, giving his life for our salvation.  That kind of bread is the only thing that is ultimately satisfying.  It trumps the bread they forgot to bring, it trumps the so-called leaven of the Pharisees and Herod, it even trumps my Doritos and potato chips.  Don’t settle for junk food that won’t give any nourishment when you can have the Bread of Life.

 

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