March 3, 2015 - Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Isaiah 1:10, 16-20
Psalm 50:8-9, 16-17, 21, 23
Matthew 23:1-12


“Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” It seems at first glance that we are guilty of letting a human tradition stand in the way of the words of our Lord. It seems that way at second glance too. We cannot say that Jesus was wrong, and we cannot say that Matthew did not faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ really taught.

There are some little tricks that people use to explain this, but they are not satisfactory. True, we call our male parent, “Father”, but Jesus is talking about titles that religious people take on. True, we do not use the exact word that Jesus condemns, since he did not speak English (the word “father” had not even been invented yet), but this seems too legalistic. Jesus is saying that we should not call anyone by the same name that we use for our male parent, no matter what language. True, Jesus says “call no one on earth your father”, and we do not call anyone “Our Father” except God, but why do we come so close to breaking the command?

However, and this is a big however, the use of “Father” as a title for religious leaders goes back as far as the Church herself. The desert monks of the early Church were called “Abba”. St. Paul himself says that “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” We did not just discover the Gospel of Matthew yesterday. Even St. Jerome, 1600 years ago, struggled to interpret this verse in light of the tradition. It seems strange that this tradition grew up in a Church which always read the Gospels. The people who first started calling a priest or a monk “father” knew what Jesus had said.

One reason why tradition is so essential in the Church is that the members of the early Church understood better the literal meaning of Jesus’ words. They were closer to him culturally and historically. If they, reading this Gospel just as we do every year, did not think it was a contradiction to call religious leaders “Father” who are we to disagree? But if we do keep calling people on earth “Father”, we do so acknowledging our one Father in heaven. Let us “bow our knees before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.”

March 2, 2015 - Monday of the Second Week of Lent

Daniel 9:4-10
Psalm 79:8-9, 11, 13
Luke 6:36-38


In fairy tales, not the Disney versions but the originals, a common trope is that the king will ask the wicked person for advice on how to punish a wicked person. The wicked person misunderstands who the punishment is for and advises a particularly horrific punishment. Then the king tells the wicked person that they will be punished exactly as they said. There is some poetic justice in how the person is forced to suffer their own sentence. I often wondered why they never realize in time that they have been caught and suggest some very light punishment.

Jesus warns us that we are going to suffer this poetic justice. Hopefully, we hear his words in time to save ourselves. If our King asks me how a sinner should be treated, I am going to say that he should be forgiven if he is even a little bit sorry and then welcomed into heaven. These cannot be mere words: I need to start treating sinners that way since that is how I want to be treated. Jesus tells us that the measure with which we measure will be measured out to us. In other words, we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us, because that is in fact how it will be done unto us.

When we do something wrong, we are usually quick to talk about mitigating circumstances. It is truly a saint who takes absolute responsibility for their own sins. Even if we accept responsibility for our sin, we who fall far short of righteousness quickly begin to explain why it was not really so bad after all, until we are confessing merely that we misheard or misunderstood or were misunderstood: “I am very sorry that you were offended by what I said.” How rare is the person who can say “I’m sorry” without adding soon after “Although, it was not really as bad as you make out.”

So it is that we are very good about making up excuses for ourselves. We should stop that. But, at the very least, we should start using this marvelous talent with other people. Not pretending that bad is good, but making every excuse for the person who has sinned against us. When someone cuts you off in traffic, presume that they are on their way to the hospital. When someone snaps at you, presume they have a very bad headache. When we measure out punishment, what seems like a tiny dose given to another will look enormous when it is directed back at ourselves.

February 28, 2015 - Saturday of the First Week of Lent

Deuteronomy 26:16-19
Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 7-8
Matthew 5:43-48


So when Jesus says, “Be perfect”, what does he mean? I suppose he could mean, “be really not so bad after all” or “accept your imperfections as part of who you are”, but I actually think he meant “Be perfect.” My difficulty is that I fail utterly at being perfect, so what then?

Perhaps Jesus, knowing that I will fail to achieve this standard, sets it high anyway to tell me to be satisfied with nothing less. He wants me to be unusual, to do more than the others do. Not a little more, but a lot more. I am not to be satisfied until I am perfect, and, since I am never perfect, I am never allowed to be satisfied with my current level of love; I am never able to say, “I love enough.”

The command to be perfect stands on its own. Even if I am not perfect and have not been perfect and have no reasonable expectation of achieving perfection in the future, I am still commanded to be perfect. The command never goes away. The Pharisees loved to know the limits of commands, where they could stop obeying, but this command is unlimited. Some psychologists would say that this is unhealthy obsession with perfection, that I should learn to love myself just the way I am, but I cannot. I want to love myself just the way I could be.

On the other hand, Jesus might mean this not so much as a command as an offer. These sorts of phrases are always in advertisements. You know: “Live in Florida” or “Be beautiful.” The advertisement is saying, “It is possible to do these things if you take advantage of what I am offering you.” Then Jesus’ words would mean that if we love our neighbor and our enemy, we will become perfect. Love has the power to perfect us.

I know that I will never be as perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect. No matter how perfect I ever become by the grace of God, God will be more perfect. Jesus does not compare our perfection to our Father’s perfection because that is reasonable goal for us, but because we should look at our Father who loves us and want to be just like him. God made the rocks to be rocks and the flowers to be flower, and God made the angels to be angels, but he made humans to be gods, sons and daughters of the Most High.

February 27, 2015 - Friday of the First Week of Lent

Ezekiel 18:21-28
Psalm 130:1-8
Matthew 5:20-26


“If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?” We have just repeated this verse several times, but it really does need to be hammered into our heads. We are not good enough; no one is. The world is not divided between the virtuous and the wicked, between the good and the bad. We are all bad. We might not have killed anyone, or committed a crime that would send us to prison. We might be what the world calls “a basically good person”. This does not matter. We know the reality behind the fa├žade we show the world. We not only make mistakes, doing or saying something before thinking about it, but we consciously make bad decisions. We are not perfect and anything less than perfect is not good enough.

The first reading demonstrates the problems we face. The wicked man can easily convert, and his whole life is forgotten in favor of his new attitude. Likewise, the virtuous man can easily fall and do something wicked and his whole life is forgotten because of his sin. These are not two different men but one man. We should each recognize ourselves in these portraits, how easily we go from wickedness to virtue and back. A person can, in the course of an hour, sin and convert and sin again.

Jesus tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. These were people who tried as hard as they could to be good, to follow every law. We are not going to beat the Pharisees at their own game. We need something different. We have something different in humble repentance. In the first reading, the wicked man who repents is saved but the virtuous man who falls is condemned. If we see ourselves as “basically good”, we are going to fall. Pride comes before the fall.

If we acknowledge our wickedness, if we admit that we do not love God as we should and we do not love our neighbors nearly as much as ourselves, we are on the path to repentance. Humility comes before the conversion. The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are rooted in Christian spirituality. The first step, “We admitted we were powerless—that our lives had become unmanageable”, is not some special status of alcoholics. This is the attitude that we all must have in the face of sin.

February 26, 2015 - Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25
Psalm 138:1-3, 7-8
Matthew 7:7-12


The condition that Jesus sets today for receiving the gifts of God is asking. Ask and it will be given to you. God gives good things to those who ask. Why do we have to ask? The desire has to precede the gift. If we receive a gift that we do not want, we thank the giver politely and then put it on a shelf. The gifts of God are not made for shelves. God is not holding back a gift until we ask for it nicely. His hands are forever extended, ready to give, but he will not shove the gift down our throats.

Jesus speaks of a gift today, not wages. We cannot earn the gift of God, otherwise it would not be a gift. This does not mean, however, that we have nothing to do. We have to prepare ourselves for the gift. If we bought a dress for a woman, not in her size but in the size that she ought to be, she would not be able to receive the gift until she had gotten into shape. This sounds rather offensive and mean-spirited, and so it would be coming from a normal giver, but God has all kinds of gifts for us that will not fit us now. He is anticipating what we can become, not what we are.

When St. Francis prayed that God would show his love, he received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ in his hands and feet. If he had received that gift before his conversion or too soon afterward, it would only have confused him and either increased his pride or discouraged him altogether. Imagine the gifts that God has planned for you that will not fit now. These are not gifts for you alone, but for the whole Church: gifts of healing and prophecy, gifts of suffering and martyrdom, gifts of faith, hope, and love.

We should celebrate whenever we see spiritual progress, wherever we see it. Not only will the praise of God be greater, but we are closer, as a Church, to the next gift. There are amazing gifts just around the next bend, if we will make progress. We stand here, playing with mere toys, afraid to take the next step. We need to start seeking and finding the next foothold in our spiritual life. Our progress, which is measured in love of God and neighbor, is so little, so far.

February 22, 2015 - Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

Isaiah 55:10-11
Psalm 34:4-7, 16-19
Matthew 6:7-15


Our God is not deaf. He is not asleep. He is not far away from us. Our God is not busy. We have so much difficulty imagining an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, eternal God that we invent difficulties that do not exist. We imagine that God must be too busy running the whole universe to listen to us. God is not like us. He is more attentive to each of us than we are to ourselves. He knows the life history of every mosquito. He knows when a hair falls off our head. We cannot fathom how attentive he is to us.

God does not hear us because we pray to him. He hears every word we speak all day long; he knows every thought we think. We may be tempted to imagine that when we turn to God in prayer, it is like picking up the phone and calling him. Not at all! We are more like a toddler picking up a toy phone and calling our father who is sitting right there watching us. God does not hear us better when we are in church or when our hands are folded or when we are looking up at a particular corner of the ceiling or shouting at the sky.

God is not inattentive, but we are. The difference between when we pray and when we are not praying is not God’s attention to us but our attention to God. Sometimes we wonder whether God is hearing our prayer. This is certain: he is. Our real concern should be with whether we are hearing him. God is with us always, hearing every thought, feeling, and word, but, when we finally turn to him, we act like he does not know us. We think that prayer is all about God, but, paradoxically, it is all about us. When we pray, we are not contending with an absent God but with ourselves: with our selfish, stubborn, obtuse natures.

When we pray, we may use many words or few, we might repeat a prayer or speak freely to God, we may invoke God’s name or ask a Saint to pray for us, we might read the Scriptures or sit in silence hoping to hear the Spirit speak within us, but we should not pile up words, as the Gentiles do, thinking that in their many words they will be heard. We are not trying to be heard; we are trying to hear.

February 23, 2015 - Monday of the First Week of Lent

Leviticus 19.1-2, 11-18
Psalm 19.8, 9, 10, 15 Resp. John 6:63b
Matthew 25.31-46

When it comes to saving for retirement, all the financial advisors agree: save early and save often. It would seem that the point of working is to produce a retirement account. As for your IRA or 401K, I cannot say, but for the most important retirement account we have, this advice stands. We have an account in heaven. The interest rate is phenomenal, and the market is never going to crash. There is a kingdom there that has been prepared for us from before the foundation of the world. There is a room there with your name on it, waiting for you to move in. We need to build up that account though; we need to start making deposits. God’s bank tellers are all around us: the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, strangers, the imprisoned, the sick. Whatever we deposit with them is going to be credited to our account.

The Church sets before us the fourteen works of mercy. The seven corporal works and the seven spiritual works. The seven corporal works include the six that Jesus mentions here and, because groups of seven are kind of the thing, adds burying the dead. A good practice this Lent would be to make sure that we do something for all seven. Feed the hungry, whether in person in a soup kitchen or by sending money in the rice bowl or donating to the food shelf. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked, and not only with your cast-off clothing that you wanted to get rid of anyway. Visit those in prison. Welcome the stranger, particularly the homeless, perhaps not into your own home, depending on your circumstances, but into a home. Visit the sick, especially the forgotten people in nursing homes. And bury the dead, come to a funeral, especially of someone who would not have had many people come.

Do these works of mercy generously, not as if only trying to check off a list. Do these works of mercy gladly, not only because people need your help, but because you need to be merciful. Do these works of mercy unreservedly, without too much concern for the worthiness of the recipient: be willing to be taken advantage of. When we arrive at the day of judgment, we do not want to be shocked by how low the balance is in our account. Start saving up now; make regular deposits. Save early and save often.