Tag Archives: Jesus

25TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

Let’s start with the last reading, Jesus’ story as told by St. Matthew and that we just heard. I think no one would deny that the agreement between the boss and the workers is logical. It’s honest and just. They agreed to be paid a certain amount of money for a decided-upon number of hours of labor. And both they and the boss kept their word at the end of the day. No problem there.

But, enter the latecomers, who began to work pretty near closing time. For whatever personal reason, the boss decides to pay them the same as he was paying those who worked much longer hours . All emotional feelings aside, who can say that the “early birds” were being in any way cheated? Really no one.

On the surface of the issue, it does seem at first that the charge of unfairness can be defended; but deeper analysis reveals that, strictly speaking, the boss’s generosity to those who were hired late in the day has nothing to do with what he owed those those who had worked longer.

(I must, though, add parenthetically that this is no way to foster peace and harmony among the workers!)

It was decades ago that I began to suspect that Jesus was deliberately trying to upset his hearers, both those in his own day and us today, as a way of making us all think more deeply about life. And I have developed that line of thought into four possibilities of what he had in mind and intention:

That whether life has been kind or cruel to us, we are fortunate to have lived at all, because life is ultimately beautiful and unending beyond our deaths.

2. That we are not created to live in isolation — unnoticed, unwanted, and unrelated to others; no, we are called by the God of Life into relationship with God and our fellow humans, from which we are destined to gain a share in the eternal life of God.

3. That however competitive our progress in the present world must be, there should be no competition among the people of God. All are beneficiaries of God’s boundless mercy and love.

4. That God does not give us merely what is our due: God goes far beyond that always, gifting us with wild generosity and forgetting our offenses. There are no rules or restraints, no limits to God’s love, no conditions.

It seems to me that this Gospel story is aimed at our tidiness, our self-assured sense of justice, having all the “ducks” of our life in neat little rows. We are the ones who impose limits and all kinds of regulations which are perceived as putting us in good favor with God. But the truth is that God’s love is unmeasured and unchained. We have only to receive it with gratitude and joy and pass it on generously and forgivingly to others.

Jesus, with attractive stories like this one today, is coaxing us into a more reckless way of life patterned after the life of the one he called Father. He says, over and over again, “Just live, do good, be kind and generous and forgiving — and let happen what happens.”

The simple truth is that God will happen!

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22nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

When I was 22 years old, a senior in college, I finally decided that I would study for the priesthood. My father expressed reservations about my plans and said much about my having led a rather sheltered life. He suggested that I take some time off for a long trip to see the world or for a work experience or anything that would have the effect of maturing me in the ways of the world and the realities of life. I remember understanding his point of view while at the same time being very sure that this was the thing for me to do and that now was the time to do it.

My father was motivated, in giving me that advice, by the desire to help me avoid making a mistake in a matter of importance — my future. More than that, I believe he thought of the priesthood as a life of personal denial and lack of freedom that, although entered with romantic idealism, could eventually leave me regretful and unhappy. He was doing his job as a parent to protect the oldest of his children from harm.

It seems to me that Peter was acting like a protective parent toward the young Jesus in the incident we heard proclaimed today. Along with Jesus’ other disciples and apostles, Peter had an idea of what being the Messiah meant, and he was absolutely certain that it could not possibly involve suffering and death. How could it? Messiah is savior, conqueror of evil forces, bringer of life. “Suffering Messiah” is a contradiction in terms.

All Jesus’ many references and predictions concerning future suffering for him and his followers escaped their comprehension. As we’d say today, “They just didn’t get it.” Eventually, but only when they experienced it themselves, they did learn that there’s an inevitable price attached to being Messiah — and to following Messiah.

And so must we learn the same.

It is misplaced kindness to discourage those we love from what the Spirit of God is moving them to do when we think we see more clearly than they do that there are sufferings ahead. It is the right thing to do, instead, to discern with them what they are probably facing and to encourage them to trust that, if they believe that this is really what God wants them to do, then God will provide for every future conflict and difficulty.

Just being a faithful Catholic is going to involve pain and suffering.

We all run the risk of being called extremists and fundamentalists if we speak and act boldly when we feel that our government or society itself is taking the wrong stand in a moral issue of our day.

To resist the madness of out-of-control-consumerism can mark us as hopelessly out of step with our fast-paced society.

To belong to one political party or another and oppose, on grounds of Gospel principles, some of what it stands for takes courage and firm commitment.

We don’t need, any more than Jesus did, to be talked out of our moral principles; we don’t need to be saved from hurt or loss. We need to encourage each other to consider prayerfully his mind and heart and to act accordingly, certain only that at precisely the right time support and confirmation will be given us — as it was given to him.

21ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

During the 20 years of my pastorship in the Paterson Diocese, I made regular visits to our homebound parishioners, taking Communion to them and serving them in whatever ways I could. One of the widows on the long list was an elderly woman who lived alone and at whose front door I’d have to wait for several minutes as she methodically and slowly opened three locks and a deadbolt. She was a very sensible, level-headed person, not at all paranoiac. The four security measures were simply necessary to keep her sufficiently safe. That upset me then and still does as I think about it today.

It also bothers me to have to lock my car doors for the night and to endorse checks properly before putting them in my wallet — because we do these things assuming that people are not to be trusted — that we are natural enemies who will take advantage of each other whenever we can. The key, the lock, the deadbolt and the burglar alarm are all signs of what we have become — or, conversely, what we have never become. They are a shame, a disgrace, an embarrassment, a judgment.

Jesus entrusted to Peter and the infant church what he called the “keys to heaven” and with them the power to bind and to absolve. (I believe that “bind” in this context means to command or to impose an obligation with authority.) No notion here of keeping anyone out or of defending the infant church from enemies.

No, what Jesus seems to be doing is placing his spirit in the community, helping the community to judge all things wisely and then to act as Jesus himself would act in the same situation. That is what those keys unlock — the guidance of the Holy Spirit, always available to to those who want to think and and say and do what is right and true and life-giving.

The keys that the church has been given are meant to free its members from ignorance and fear, from crippling conservatism, from suspicion and distrust.

Life-giving is the work of the church. Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life and have to to the full.” To be a member of the church is to share in the power of the keys in one way or another. We are being church when we, in any way, open up to others God’s presence in our midst.

Pope Francis has been given the “master key”, so to speak, to enable him to serve the church throughout the world; but to each of us are also given keys, no two exactly alike, enabling us to be givers of life in the countless circumstances of our daily lives.

As I look out at this very moment, I am awestruck by the power for good that you represent! And I ask you to remain mindful of who and what you are: bearers of the keys to life that Jesus has placed in your hands and in your hearts.

20TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

Some of the answers that Jesus gave to people asking for his help seem unkind, almost cruel; what we just heard is one of them. To understand what was going on between him and the distraught mother, we have to realize that she was a Gentile, therefore looked down upon by the Jews. At first he responds like the Jew that he was, telling her that if she were a faithful Jew he’d honor her request immediately. But since she’s the equivalent of a heathen, for him to help her would be like giving to the dogs the food that should go to the children.

The woman is obviously a bright lady; she doesn’t let Jesus off the hook; she reminds him that the house pets are allowed to eat the food that falls off the family table. Jesus likes that response, and likes her. He grants her request.

Bible experts tell us that in Jesus’ time, that little exchange of clever words would not have sounded insulting at all. It was a common form of conversation — a “thrust & parry” of words and ideas. Jesus was not being uncaring or unkind; he was simply drawing out the conversation in order to make an important point for the woman and us to hold onto.

Remember that she had addressed him as “Lord” and “Son of David” — which means that, even though she wasn’t a Jew, she did have faith in him as a person who seemed to know God well. She expressed faith in him and what he could do for her and her daughter. She’s a believing Gentile — maybe the first he’d ever met. No matter what nation or family or religion she came from, there was undeniable faith in her heart. She may not have recognized God in the temple, but she did see God in the person of Jesus! That had to be a gift of the Holy Spirit.

We Catholics have come from a very rigid tradition in which there was a standard pattern for religious belief and practice for us all. If we traveled to Paris, Peoria or Pakistan, the rules and the rituals would be essentially the same. It was a good feeling to be so united.

But things are different now, as we are fond of saying, and — I would say — much better. We interpret the scriptures differently; many theologies are invited to shed light on the one ancient faith; the creativity and customs of a variety of peoples give uniqueness and individuality to worship. No longer do we regard as enemies to be avoided those who pray or act differently from us. Instead, we recognize them as sisters and brothers in whom the same Spirit of Love and Truth is gently at work.

Some Catholics pine for the “good ol’ days” when everything we Catholics did and said was cut & dried and meant to remain forever unchanged. Not so today. As the famous spirituals say, “The Spirit is a-movin’!” And we must pray, as Jesus always did, not to become narrow-minded and short-sighted. And to recognize true faith and goodness in whatever form they appear.

God calls us to build unity in our families, our communities and our world, not by all wearing the same spiritual clothing, but by praising the Spirit of God in every life-giving word and work that comes from anyone, anywhere!

Be at peace! God loves you wildly exactly as you are!!

TRANSFIGURATION, 2017

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1a

A priest in my home diocese was assigned many years ago to the church in which I was pastor. Everyone loved him for his natural goodness, his humility, his generosity. To this day, I respect him highly and think of him as a good and loving priest after the heart of Jesus. When he became a pastor himself many years later, the bishop sent him a young priest assistant. However, that young man was ultra-conservative and from his very first day there was troubled by what he was seeing and hearing in the pastor’s theology and ministry.

At one Sunday Mass, at which my friend was presiding and preaching, the assistant barged into the sanctuary, raised his hands and shouted to the congregation, “Don’t listen to this man! He is not giving you the Gospel of Jesus; he is giving you his own gospel, his own opinions, and you must not accept them!”

Of course, that very week the young priest was removed from the parish, and what has happened to him since I do not know in detail.

But why, you may be thinking right now, am I beginning today’s homily in such a way? The answer is simple: every Monday or Tuesday, as I begin the long and difficult process of writing a meaningful homily for the coming Sunday, if the readings contain something like what we heard just minutes ago (in this case, Jesus lighting up like a neon sign), I agonize over how to speak of it. Aware that different minds in the congregation react very differently, I wonder how I can reach everybody with an interpretation that all can accept.

If I answered, “That’s not possible,” I would be forced to say nothing — just let it pass without comment as though it had been heard by no one.

So, for all the years that I have been with you, I have tried my best to speak to you in carefully measured words, giving you, each time we have been together, just enough to think about as you try to understand these ancient writings through 21st century eyes and ears.

And that is necessary because with the passage of 3000 years we humans now know that God doesn’t cause rain by sending angels to open the portals that will allow the waters above the earth to irrigate our fields and fill our reservoirs. But that totally unscientific idea — and hundreds of others like it — are part of what you find in the bible.

The writing of the Sacred Scriptures is a never-ending process. It is going on even as we speak. What we call the Word of God is not forever fixed and static; it is a living masterpiece that is carried from generation to generation, century to century, and requires constant updating. Its many languages, so long unspoken, have to be better understood; its understanding of the universe has to be brought up to date; the bits of historical data it contains must be constantly checked and double checked to certify their accuracy.

You and I may not be literary scholars or scientists or trained theologians; but we possess common sense enough to at least suspect that what is passed on as objective truth may indeed at times not be that at all. The message the Scriptures contain is infallible; the literary device that carries it is not.

Now that I have used up every minute allotted for this homily and have said nothing about the Gospel passage for today, but have chosen to speak instead of what underlies it, let me conclude by assuring you, as best I can, that there is profound meaning for each of us in that passage that would render us the poorer if we were to miss it; and it is this: the Transfiguration of Jesus on that mountain top is far more about us than about Jesus. It tells us that we must seek and allow a change in us, not in him, in order that we might recognize him beyond his humanity that was obvious to anyone and to recognize, to see clearly and appreciate, that he is the perfect image of the invisible God and, therefore, that to know him is to know God!

13TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

As we all know, not very many young men and women are entering seminaries and novitiates these days to prepare for priesthood and vowed religious life. But, at the same time, other forms of service to the needy and the poor have emerged. Not very long ago I was visiting the grandfather of a beautiful young woman who had entered the Peace Corp and would spend two years as the only Westerner in a little village in Benin, East Africa. She would sleep in a mud-floored hut, eat what the natives ate, and assist especially the children and their mothers with the skills she took with her.

When I attended her departure party, I asked her about her long-term dreams, which she quickly identified as including a husband and children and a house with a white-picket fence and an SUV in the driveway! But for now, she said, this Peace Corp mission was what she had to do. Somehow she knew beyond all doubt that this was her present vocation, her call from the condition of the world at that time and her ability to respond to it in a helpful, life giving way.

When Jesus says, “Come, follow me”, he means now. It’s an invitation to a journey that may not relate directly to my vision of the future.

What does anyone get in return for following those Gospel invitations, those subtle directives from the Holy Spirit that the receiver can hardly explain to him- or herself, much less to others. At first, oftentimes, a lot of trouble: confusion, disturbance of mind, sleepless nights while trying to arrive at a yes or a no. An interruption — possibly an abandonment — of one’s most cherished plans and dreams. The discomfort of putting up with what people are thinking. Upsetting changes in one’s lifestyle.

The new life we take on in Baptism is for the most part lived out in quite ordinary circumstances, but it requires us to apply ourselves wholeheartedly to the process of growing out of the natural selfishness in which we were born, and lived as infants, and into loving and caring relationships with our fellow human beings. “Love one another,” he said, “as I have loved you.”

In the stark, almost harsh words in today’s gospel excerpt, Jesus is not asking us to despise or reject or betray our parents and relatives, but to make our most fundamental pledge of loyalty to him. In other words, our total, uncompromising attachment to him, to his teachings and his values and his ways, is to make possible in us a higher form of behavior and response. It is not enough that we be loyal to our race or our sex or our nationality or our church; we must discern what is the will of God for us now, at this moment, and pursue that as best we can.

We are to forgive everyone, to give to those in need, to welcome the foreigner, to shift constantly between two economies — the one by which we acquire and save and enjoy the good things of life; the other by which we risk and sometimes lose what is dear to us as we do what Jesus would do at any given moment.

That cup of cold water Jesus spoke about isn’t asking much of us at all — it’s almost nothing. But it can take many other forms of increasing value. We are to remain always alert to whose desperate thirst Jesus wants us to slake in his name and how we shall go about doing that.

3RD SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2017

When you sit at a restaurant table and the waiter brings a basket of bread, precut but not all the way through, and the basket gets passed from person to person, you are literally breaking bread together. Ancient cultures — and many still today — weren’t the least bit squeamish about the dirt the bread picked up as it made its way from hand to hand. And, of course, they had no idea about bacteria or any other invisible enemies.

Bread to them was life — figurative and literal life. As they ate from the same loaf, they were keenly aware that they were feeding on a common source of life. That life made them one people and symbolized their unity. With food of all kinds available to us day & night and wherever we go, the sense of a family meal as a life source is greatly diminished. On the other hand, for our ancestors it played a major role in their identity as a people.

We heard in today’s gospel passage that after Jesus had risen from the dead the disciples “knew him in the breaking of the bread.” As helpful and enlightening as all the instruction they were getting from this apparent stranger along the way must have been, within the context of the story as we know it, that intellectual approach was not enough to make those men realize that the one they were conversing with was actually Jesus. It was their friend and teacher who had been crucified, the Jesus who was said to be alive but whom they had not yet seen — or so they thought.

But when they sat down to eat with him, when they broke bread with this stranger, the process of discovery was complete: their eyes were opened and they recognized him.

But wouldn’t those who believe that Jesus rose physically from death ask, Wait a minute: you mean they did not immediately recognize his face, his voice, his accent, his laugh, the message in the instruction they were getting from him?

My guess is that what we have been left with is a timeless, beautiful, highly symbolic story whose job it is to reveal to all of us a very significant layer of meaning in this Jesus event that we might otherwise have failed to appreciate.

What we are hearing is a gift to us — a brilliantly conceived story of embellishment and clarification.

The careful instruction they had received from him during their long walk together was not sufficient for what he had in mind. It had to be accompanied by another kind of experience, an experience of deep, personal fellowship in that best understood setting of a meal — the sharing of life from a common source.

Put the two together and we have sacrament. The sacrament of Eucharist. The earliest Christians called the Mass the “breaking of bread.” It had two basic parts: words of scripture, both ancient and contemporary; and the action involving the bread & wine.

Let’s keep in mind that this meal event takes place in the course of a journey. What could that imply but the journey that you and I are on? We are walking through life with Jesus, conversing all the way, stopping occasionally to eat or to rest, becoming more familiar with him with each shared step.

There is no fixed roadmap so complete that it can serve as guide in all the circumstances of our lives. But we have more than that: we walk with the Risen Jesus every step, every minute of the unpredictable way. If we relate to him honestly, openly, frankly, we will get from him, especially in the breaking of the bread, the most satisfying answers.