August 30, 2011 - Tuesday of the Twenty-Second Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

St. Paul, in this reading from his First Letter to the Thessalonians, encourages us not to sleep like the rest of the world. Sleeping means not trying. He also says that we are not of in darkness, for we are children of light. Darkness makes a person want to sleep. Darkness is hopelessness. Hopelessness makes us want to stop trying. Light is hope. We are children of hope.

What kind of hope? Not a false hope. St. Paul has just warned us that “when people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them.” This is the false hope on which the world hangs its dreams. False hope is more assumption than hope. It starts innocently enough, we wake up in the morning and assume that the floor is still there. We breathe air and just assume that there is oxygen in it. We go to work, and we assume that we will get paid. We get in an elevator and assume that we will not plummet to our deaths. We must do all this assuming, because the alternative is being paranoid to the point of insanity.

But then we extend these assumptions to other matters. We put money away in a retirement account and assume that it will still be there in thirty years. We live in America, so we assume that no army will ever invade our home. We go to the grocery store and assume that there will be food available for a price we can pay. We make these assumptions, yet how many counter-examples throughout the world should give us pause! Our safety and security seems so rock-solid, but it is really a fragile soap bubble in time destined to eventually pop.

When someone puts their hope in this world, they are in darkness. They think that they are awake; they are working so hard; they are exhausted every day, but they are really just dreaming; they are asleep. If you put in an eight hour shift in your dreams one night, no one will actually pay you no matter how tired you are. If you work hard for a worldly hope, even if you do not live through war or famine, the world will fail to actually pay you.

We are children of the light. Our hope is founded in reality, and it will not disappoint. Now if only we could work as hard for our real salvation as the world does for it ephemeral rewards.

August 28, 2011 - Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

“Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, ‘God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.’” How did Peter say those words? Should we imagine him saying them in anger? Or should imagine that he said them perfectly calm as if he were discussing something of little importance? No, I do not think so. I think we ought to imagine Peter saying those words, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you”, trembling and weeping. He was not rebuking so much as begging.

Which is why I am confused by Jesus’ response: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” I understand that Peter was wrong; he still did not know that the Christ had to suffer and die and so be raised, but why did Jesus have to be so harsh? Instead of comforting Peter while teaching him, he calls him literally the worst name in the book.

Yet this epithet, Satan, is the key to understanding the harshness of Jesus’ response. Satan is the one who tempted Jesus, three times in the desert. At the end of that story we are told that Satan intended to return to tempt Jesus some more. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” because Peter is doing the work of Satan; he is tempting Jesus. How can we doubt that when Peter, tears streaming down his face, pleaded with the Lord, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you”, Jesus was tempted to give in to the appeal of his friend?

This episode could easily be called the “fourth temptation of Jesus”. Satan could not reach him through hunger or doubt or greed or a thirst for power, so he tried to reach him through his friend. We can see in the three earlier temptations that the responses of Jesus become progressively harsher; his reaction is strongest when the temptation is greatest.

There is a lesson for us here about resisting temptation. We should not imagine that we can do it calmly. We are made both intellectual and passionate. Our ability to get angry, when channeled properly, is our strongest defense against temptation. We are not expected to be like angels. We are often astounded by the fact that we do exactly what we did not want to do. We make good decisions; then we break them. Jesus was a perfect human, and he used his anger to repel temptation.

It would not be better to be like a robot or Spock, without emotions. Our emotions can be our greatest strength, if we use them rather than let them use us. Jesus was not angry all the time, although he had plenty of reasons to be angry. He saved his anger for when he needed it, but then he was not afraid to use it.

As for Peter, Jesus taught him the mistake he was making. He was “thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Since Peter is a human being, this should not be a surprising accusation. We are human beings but we are called to something greater; we are called to have the mind of Christ. St. Paul tells us that we should not conform ourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds.

What does it mean to be conformed to this age? It means to watch television and believe the lies about love and marriage that are told on every show. It means to compromise the truth with those who want to redefine marriage. It means to consider money as a god and make being rich the point of our lives.

What does it mean to conform our minds to this age? Consider those who say that they oppose abortion except in cases of rape and incest. This is a completely illogical position to hold. If killing a baby is wrong, then it is wrong. It does not matter what crime the child’s father has committed. Still, we hear this phrase spoken everywhere by so-called pro-life politicians. Why? Because they have bought into the idea that a horrible situation can be made better by killing somebody. Sometimes a horrible situation is just that, and there is no way to fix it, we can only deal with the aftereffects.

What does it mean to be transformed by the renewal of our minds? It means a new perspective on reality: God’s perspective. Many things do not make sense to us when we consider them from our own point-of-view but we cannot see everything from our own point-of-view. The Holy Spirit can give us the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. With these gifts we can discern the will of God, we will be able to see what is good, pleasing, and perfect. When the Holy Spirit renews our minds, we can understand why what seemed good from our perspective was actually bad.

Overeating, overspending, pornography, laziness: some people have convinced themselves that they like these sins; the out-of-control credit card bill or the extra 100 pounds are explained away, but we Christians know better because of the Holy Spirit: lust, greed, gluttony, and sloth are deadly sins. We know better, but we often fail to do better. The weapons we need to fight temptation are our emotions. Our minds will only be able to control our bodies when we have become masters of emotion.

Jesus was tempted just like us, but he never sinned. If we ever hope to be perfect (and that is the command of our Lord, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”) then we need to use every tool that God has given us: humility, emotions, intellect, grace, and the Holy Spirit. We will fail if we try to fight Satan with one hand tied behind our back.

Striving for perfection is the meaning of life. It is not something we do in an hour or a day. Eighty years is rarely enough. The point though is to always be striving toward perfection. We need to know where perfection is and then we need to strive to reach it. Our intellect allows us to find perfection, but only with a mind renewed by the Holy Spirit, only if we stop thinking like human being do and start thinking like God does. Our emotions allow us to strive, to fight against the chains that hold us back, to climb the mountains that are in our way. With a renewed intellect and controlled emotions and the grace of God in the Holy Spirit, what could possibly stop us from becoming saints?

August 27, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Monica

Today's Readings

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, a talent was a pile of silver coins. It was equal, more or less, to what the average worker earned in 15 years, about a quarter million dollars. In the parable today, one servant is trusted with 5 talents, 5 large piles of silver coins. In English, the word “talent” has acquired a different meaning, precisely because of this parable. It is an easy analogy to consider that the servant who has received five piles of silver coins is a lot like us. We are God’s servants, and we have received generous abilities from God.

The traditional interpretation of this parable is that, just as the servants were expected to invest their talents and make more money, so too God expects that we will invest our talents and save souls. If we bury our talents as the one servant buried his talent, we will be punished severely. What does it mean to bury a talent? It means to waste time on television and other entertainments that could have been used to develop our talents or to use them for the greater glory of God, or worse, to use our talents for evil purposes, to use our gifts from God to make money or fool people or gain worldly advantages.

This interpretation is good and fruitful and true, but it is also possible to consider this parable in a simpler way. As the servants received silver, the currency of the world, we Christians have received love, the currency of the Kingdom of Heaven. God has loved us with an abundant love. We would not be able to love if God had not first loved us; God’s love is the initial investment that makes everything else possible. God has loved each of us and all of us; he is love.

In return, we must not bury the love of God away in our souls, or merely return it to him as we received it. He does want his love back; we must love God, but he expects his love to do amazing things while it is in the world. In this way, the amount of love in the world increases. Only love is creative. Money does not increase or decrease; we just move it around to give that impression. Love is always increasing unless we prevent it. We are loved and so we love and so we are loved.

August 26, 2011 - Friday of the Twenty-First Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

It is very difficult for us to understand this parable. Why are ten virgins waiting outside for the bridegroom? Why do they need lamps? Even scholars are not sure. What is definite is that these virgins are not the brides. Our best guess is that they are more like bridesmaid; they are waiting to process the bridegroom into his feast.

Let us forget about the foolish virgins and consider two details about the wise virgins. First, they have flasks of oil with them. What do these flasks signify? We do not know. They are something extra, something beyond, but what they are is uncertain. After all the virgins fell asleep, they need what is in the flask. Perhaps it is prayer or study. The wise virgins had a stronger foundation of prayer and studying the Scriptures and the Catechism, so they were able to be ready when the time came.

The oil in the flask could also be a symbol of the Holy Spirit; oil often is used to symbolize the Holy Spirit. Then we would say that the light of faith burned out in those who were relying only on themselves for faith. The Holy Spirit is the only fuel for our faith that is sure to be there when we need it.

The second detail could be called holy selfishness. The wise virgins do not let the foolish virgins share what is in the flasks. There are many people in this world who would like to keep you from doing what you need to do to be ready for Christ, people who will complain that you are praying or studying or going to Mass when they need you for their own purposes. Do not let them prevent you from being prepared. Be selfish!

We do have human relationships which demand our time and effort. Failing to live up to them is not a holy thing. A mother who did not care for her children but spent all her time in prayer as if she were a nun would not be practicing true devotion. Nevertheless, our relationship with God comes first. We must not allow the world or anyone in the world to demand that we stop praying and studying, to demand that we give up whatever is in the flask that allows us to keep the fire burning. We must be selfish because we will not be able to do any good if we do not first seek God.

Catholic New Media Awards Voting Ends Friday

Just a reminder for anyone who has not voted in the Catholic New Media Awards, there are only a couple of days left. It is free to register, and it is worth taking a little time to look over the nominated sites and then letting your fellow Christians know what is worth reading.

August 23, 2011 - Tuesday of the Twenty-First Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

A pure hypocrite plays a role in public that is completely disconnected from their real life. They preach about a God who they do not believe in. They preach morality which they never even try to follow. To be a pure hypocrite requires a certain type of personality. It does not seem like the scribes and Pharisees were really pure hypocrites, although there probably were a few such among them.

Then there is the universal human experience of hypocrisy. We preach an ideal that we fail to live up to. We talk about God even though we have doubts. Although this is usually how someone gets labeled a hypocrite in modern conversation, so that those who support any morality are called hypocrites because they fail to live up to that morality, everyone can see this hypocrisy in their own life. The lesson to be drawn from it is not to give up on morality but to be careful about condemning the guilty; we may be the next to fall ourselves. Everyone deserves the love, respect, and understanding that we want for ourselves when we are guilty.

The scribes and Pharisees were guilty of this hypocrisy because we all are, and they did often fall short of extending the mercy they desired for themselves, but they were also guilty of another hypocrisy. This is the hypocrisy of those who live for an image of themselves. They are more concerned with seeming good then being good. I imagine that the scribes and Pharisees would not submit to this charge. They might tell us that they tithe mint and dill even when no one is watching, but they are mistaken. They tithe the mint and dill because they are watching themselves. A hypocrite of this kind wants to seem holy, if only to themself.

It is easy to reject the life of a pure hypocrite as despicable, but we must guard carefully against these other two hypocrisies: considering ourselves too good to commit a serious sin and hiding our serious faults behind religious practice. A Christian knows that “There but for the grace of God go I” is not just a catchphrase but profound truth, and a Christian always admits that they are a sinner in need of forgiveness. Do not be afraid to admit you have done wrong; do not defend your sins; do not be satisfied with who you are: allow God to forgive you; allow God to make you perfect.

August 22, 2011 - Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today's Readings

As St. Paul writes in the first reading today, “our Gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.” So the Gospel does come in words but not in words alone. The word “gospel” means “good news”. When we tell someone about good news, it is obvious that the good news has an existence beyond our words. Good news is an event that changes reality. We can talk about the event; we can talk about the new reality, but our words will always fail to capture something. The words of the Gospel can be as simple as “Jesus Christ died and rose again”, or the words could be expanded to fill all the books that could fit on earth. Still, the words, considered by themselves, will fall short of the good news.

We ought to expect more from our good news than mere words; we ought to expect power and the Holy Spirit and much conviction. The power of good news is how the event has changed reality. Consider the power of a peace treaty that ends a war: people return home; there is no more fighting. How much more powerful is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ! Death has been conquered; the reign of sin is ended. Has the Gospel changed reality? Perhaps you and I cannot sense the change, but we can see the martyrs who prove that Christ has conquered death.

The Gospel comes with much conviction. If we hear about a hero, we begin to think, “Could I be a hero? Am I strong enough and brave enough and good enough to do what they did?” When we hear about the Gospels, we should wonder, “Could I love as much as Jesus loves?” Anything less is a failure, and we are convicted of our failure, and we strive to do better.

The Gospel comes in the Holy Spirit. This aspect is special to the Gospel. No other good news comes in the Holy Spirit. He dwells within us so that the power of the Gospel is ongoing and personal. In the Holy Spirit, we can love like Jesus. In the Holy Spirit, our own death has been conquered. Because of the Holy Spirit, the good news is not something external to us but is taking place right now within our hearts.

August 21, 2011 - Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

In the first reading, Eliakim is promoted to prime minister. The prime minister is not the king, but everyone obeys the prime minister because he is the representative of the king. It is the job of the prime minister to make sure that the will of the king is accomplished day-to-day. The Lord uses specific language when putting Eliakim in this office: “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim's shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.” It is this same language which the Lord uses to appoint Peter to be his prime minister: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

So Peter is the prime minister of the Church, which we call the “Pope”. Jesus is the king, but he has chosen Peter to be his representative here on earth until he comes back. So that a merely human person could take on this enormous responsibility, God gives to the Pope the grace of infallibility. Infallibility means that the Pope, whether he is personally a good man or a bad man, will never teach falsely about faith or morals. Even when there is a bad pope, and there have been plenty of bad popes, he will never teach what is wrong.

This is not, of course, only a gift for the man who is the Pope. It is a gift for the whole Church. We are able to relax and trust that whatever the Pope teaches us is true. One great example of this occurred about 40 years ago. Birth control had been condemned for over 1900 years by the whole Christian Church. Slowly in the 20th century, protestants began to accept birth control, but the Catholic Church continued teaching that married couples cannot use birth control. In the 1960’s many people thought that the Church should change this teaching. A commission of lay people and cardinals recommended to the Pope that he teach that the new forms of birth control were different than the old forms and could be acceptable. Then, in 1968, the Pope wrote a document teaching once again that only natural family planning can be used by married couples, that artificial birth control and sterilization was still and always would be unacceptable.

This document certainly did not make the Pope popular. Many people thought they knew theology better than he did. Perhaps they were smarter than the Pope, but he was not teaching what he thought was true, he was teaching what is actually true. As Jesus says to Peter today, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” In the past 40 years, we have come to understand how right this teaching was, largely because of the teaching of Blessed Pope John Paul II. The world hates the Church and is always yelling at the Church to change this teaching, but it will never be changed.

It will not be changed, but not because the Church is stubborn. As Jesus told St. Peter, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is not to be understood as if the Pope makes the decision and then God obeys. It is actually the opposite. God made the decision and the pope obeyed. This authority to bind and loosen is founded on what Jesus had just said, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” It is nonsense to think that God would obey a man if the man was not obeying God first.

We will not be able to receive the gift of trust in the infallibility of the Pope unless we are able to believe that a man knows the will of the Lord. In the second reading, St. Paul asks, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” There are three persons who I can list who know the mind of the Lord: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but is it possible for a human to know the mind of the Lord? Definitely! The Son is Jesus Christ, one person with two natures, human and divine. Jesus Christ, in his human nature, knows the will of the Father.

Is this just an exception, can a merely human person know the will of God? St. Paul answers yes. Here in the Letter to the Romans, it seems like a rhetorical question, but St. Paul asks it again in his First Letter to the Corinthians, and there he gives an answer: “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” The Holy Spirit, who knows the will of the Lord, lives within our hearts. He is telling each of us, right now, God’s will for us. He does not shout, since this would take away our free will, but if we listen we will hear him whispering.

So it should not seem strange to us that God prevents the Pope from teaching what is not true. We cannot doubt that God can do this when he is living in our own hearts and speaking to us. It seems too good to be true, but nothing is too good to be true. God is true, and he is very, very good. He has not left the Church to founder in its doubts. Over the past 2000 years, we see a continual process of discovering God’s will guided by the Bishop of Rome.

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” Who would have thought that a fisherman would be the man chosen to be prime minister of the Church? The primary qualification was not education or human intelligence but the ability to trust God completely. God’s plans are so mysterious, so intricate, so perfect, that we can never understand them, and, if we see a small part of that plan, we may even think it to be foolish. Only in heaven will we see the whole plan, and then it will take us forever, literally forever, to contemplate and understand his wisdom.

We can trust God. He knows what he is doing. He founded the Church and gave us leaders, knowing that they would be sinful men. He intends to save the world through them anyway.

August 20, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Bernard, abbot and doctor of the Church

Today's Readings

Today we hear the end of the fairy tale, the Cinderella story. Ruth marries her prince and lives happily ever after. Let us go back though to before she marries Boaz, when she is gleaning the fields. The law of God given to Moses said that when harvest time came, some of the harvest must be left for the poor. Even though you planted the field and cared for it all summer long, you are not allowed to harvest all of it. What is left behind is for the poor, particularly the widows, orphans, and immigrants.

This portion was not left behind as a gift because of the generosity of the landowner. It is an obligation. The gleanings of the field are evidence that even though they worked hard to grow the crops, the land, the rain, the seeds, and the sun are gifts from God to all mankind. What we possess is not ours to do with as we wish; it has been given to us as stewards. As John the Baptist said, “If you have two coats, you have someone else’s coat.” What we own is for us to use, first for our own families, then for anyone who needs it. Before anyone can have a surplus, everyone must have what they need.

This is not to take a particular side in any political debate. The Magisterium of the Church does not have the answers to political questions, but it does teach the answers to moral questions. The political questions can be settled in any moral way. So the question for any Christian is, “How are we going to provide for the poor, especially for widows, orphans, and immigrants?” Some may believe that it ought to be done by the federal government, others by the states, others by non-profit organizations. These are all acceptable, so long as it never questioned that we have an obligation to provide for people in need with our surplus.

It is unacceptable, however, to place the rights of the rich above the rights of the poor, to glorify the rich and despise the poor. People are not smart and hardworking because they are rich, and people are not lazy and unimportant because they are poor. All people, rich or poor, immigrants or natives, are first of all people. All people, from the moment of their conception, inherit this earth together. The earth does not belong more to a billionaire than to an immigrant who owns nothing.

August 19, 2011 - Friday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

Ruth did not begin to worship the true God because she had gotten a doctorate in theology. She seems strangely unconcerned about what god she is going to worship. She wants to stay with Naomi, her mother-in-law, so she says, “Wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” This is an insufficient place to end up, but, as a beginning, it is not bad. Naomi never pressured Ruth to convert, but she never compromised her own faith either. Ruth saw something attractive in the life of Naomi and wanted to be with her. Naomi made a convert because she was a friend.

Every one of you is called to convert someone. This does not mean that you should preach on the street corner. If you are a good person, people will want to be with you, people will want to be like you. We cannot love God properly without loving our neighbor. A good Christian is not someone who prays half the time and yells at people for the other half. A good Christian is like a bridge, connected to God at one end and to people at the other. A bridge like that is easy to cross.

As for Ruth, she is the great-grandmother of King David, which makes her the great, great, great … grandmother of Jesus. She is just another example in the genealogy of Jesus of someone we might not have expected. She was a Moabite, not an Israelite. It was her second marriage that produced the line of Jesus. She began her journey to the Lord as a foreigner following Naomi, but the Lord accepted her and brought her into the very center of his plan for the salvation of the world.

August 18, 2011 - Thursday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

One lesson of the first reading is that we are never obligated to do what is wrong. It does not matter who we promised or even if we made a vow to God, we are never obligated to sin.

And what Jephthah did was a sin, which leads us to the second lesson of this reading: just because it is in the Bible does not mean God approved of it. Large sections of the Old Testament are simply historical records; they tell us what happened without judging it. In this sense, it is easier to relate to these historical books than to the more theological books. We do not often have God speaking to us from clouds or through prophets. Usually things just happen without any clarification from God on whether it was right.

In the case of this story, we can be absolutely sure that God did not approve: “Thou shalt not kill.” He has made his will known to us. I wish God would have intervened. Sometime during those two months a prophet could have visited; right before Jephthah killed his daughter and burnt her body a voice could have shouted down from the clouds. Clearly the action was not God’s will, but why did God will to let it happen?

If we could see God’s will in everything that happens, life would have meaning. Even the worst suffering would be endurable if we knew that it was not pointless, that it was part of the intricate plan of God, that some good would come out of it, somehow. God lets some things happen; he stops other tragedies. If God stops a tragedy, we thank him. Should we curse him if he allows another to happen, or should we say that this tragedy must be God’s will? No, the relationship between free will and God’s will is impossible to calculate.

If good comes out of evil, we say that God willed the good but not the evil. This is not a contradiction. We can celebrate how well St. Maria Goretti died while condemning the attempted rape and murder. We can praise Jephthah’s daughter for her obedience to her father and her selfless commitment to the Lord, even as we condemn human sacrifice.

God willed these good things. He did not plan the circumstances for the sake of the good, but, having allowed them, he willed the good. It is wrong to say that God allows some evil because of the good that would come out of it. God did not allow Auschwitz because the good outweighed the evil, but he did will St. Maximilian Kolbe to give up his life for another.

In this way, we can look back on our whole life and see God’s will. Not in our sins, nor in the injustices we have suffered, but in the way that our suffering has made us who we are, in every good that we have experienced, even in the midst of suffering.

August 16, 2011 - Tuesday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” Most of the speculation and consideration of this verse is given to the first half about camels and needles, but the key to understanding the verse properly is understanding the second half properly. Most people seem to think that Jesus is saying that rich people will have a hard time getting into heaven. This is not what Jesus says.

What is the Kingdom of God? It is the reign of God. It is the fact of God being in charge. To enter the Kingdom of God means to accept that God is in charge of your life. Of course, entering the Kingdom of God in this life is a prerequisite to participating in the Resurrection, but they are two separate facts. Jesus is not saying that God does not let rich people into heaven; he is saying that rich people have a lot of trouble submitting to God’s will. It is a corollary to “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Poor people have an easier time submitting to God’s will.

Why? Perhaps because poor people are used to submitting to the will of another. Poor people are always having to do what someone else says. Rich people are used to having their own way. I have seen this fact with my own eyes. I have known many rich people, dedicated to the Church, but always insisting on living according to their own rules, like the Hollywood actor who did not like any parish nearby so he built his own chapel and hired his own priest, and now he has abandoned any pretense of following God.

It is so hard for the rich to let God reign in their hearts. It is impossible, humanly speaking, but with God all things are possible. So it does not matter if you are rich or poor, so long as you are letting God be in charge of everything. If you are having trouble giving up control, then get rid of your money or whatever else is stopping you. Love does not insist on having its own way. Sometimes we Christians have to insist on God’s way or on the Church’s way, but we should never insist on having our own way.

August 14, 2011 - Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

Today’s Gospel is disturbing, which is to say that from the rest of the Gospel we have a certain image and understanding of Jesus and today’s Gospel disturbs that. If this were the only story we had about Jesus, our whole image of him would be very different. There are various ways that people try to make sense of this passage, but few of them make any sense at all.

Was Jesus grouchy? No! Jesus, who died meekly upon the Cross, who came to serve and not to be served, who loved us so much that he died for us, was never grouchy. Was this just a saying in his time, and not as offensive as it seems to us? “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” No! Jesus always was careful about what he said, and, actually, the phrase is far, far more offensive in the original than it is now.

Was Jesus racist? He grew up in a culture that hated foreigners; did he learn to hate from the culture around him? No! Those who defend this idea suggest that the woman here taught Jesus a valuable lesson, but Jesus was not a man of his time, and, when he grew up, he grew in wisdom, age, and grace, not in prejudice, selfishness, and hatred.

Jesus just knew what words would be perfect here. Whether he is speaking to the woman at the well or inviting a new disciple, Jesus always knew just what to say to elicit the response he was looking for. God does test us. He puts challenges in our way so that we might grow as we deal with them, exercises that are difficult at the time, but make us a better person for having gone through them. We should follow the example of this woman when God tests us: be persistent, humble, and just a little bit clever: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

Perhaps Jesus was leading the woman into a deeper faith herself, or, perhaps, he knew that she had a faith so deep that it could withstand a little trial, and he wanted to use this opportunity to show the disciples how deep her faith was. He says, “O Woman, great is your faith!” Did this surprise the disciples? Jesus is paying her a compliment that he does not give out lightly. He more often says, even to his own disciples, “You of little faith.”

So Jesus’ words need not be too disturbing when considered this way, but what is going on with this division between Israel and the Gentiles? The Israelites were the chosen people. Out of all the nations on earth, God picked them, the descendants of Jacob, to be his own people. Why did he choose them? There are two reasons given consistently in the Scriptures. They were chosen because of the faith of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they were chosen because they were a small, unimportant nation. God could not have accomplished his plan with a large, powerful country, like Egypt or Rome.

God took this people, and, after 400 years of slavery, he brought them into the Promised Land with great power. Then, for the next 1000 years, he let them be conquered and freed them over and over again. The whole Old Testament is basically the story of all the times that Israel was conquered and won back their freedom. Then he let them be conquered by Babylon, who took the Jews away from their land. Jerusalem was destroyed, not one stone was left on top of another, but then, after 70 years, Babylon was conquered, and God brought them back to the Promised Land. They lived there for 500 more years, always under the power of some empire or another.

Being God’s people was never an easy proposition. He was harder on Israel than any other nation. Being God’s people did not mean that Israel would be rich or powerful. It meant that they would learn over the course of 2000 years more about God and who he was than the rest of the world combined. By the time of Jesus, Israel understood important concepts like mercy and forgiveness. The religions of the pagans still tried to trade animal sacrifices for money, yet even in the Roman and Greek cultures we can see the influence of the Jews. They became a leaven in the world, preparing the world to receive the Gospel. If Jesus had come without all this preparation, no one would have understood his ministry. Even though most of the Jews rejected the Gospel, the millions of Gentiles were only able to be converted through the ministry of the Jews who had accepted it.

In the psalm today, we sang, “O God, let all the nations praise you!” When that was written, it was far-off hope; today it is the reality. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaims that, “The nations will join themselves to the LORD.” When this was first written down, it surely seemed very unlikely, but today the prophet Isaiah was read right here in Mahopac, New York – the other side of the world from where it was written. We are the fulfillment of these prophecies.

In the past 2000 years, there has often been conflicts between the Jews and the Christians. Many times Christians persecuted the Jews, often using spurious theological justification for what they had done. This is not acceptable. Israel remains forever God’s chosen people. Although we, the Church, are now God’s chosen people, Israel does not lose its status. Someday, all of Israel will join the Church. Until that day, we preach the Gospel to all, Jews and Gentiles, but those Jews who do not freely accept the Gospel should be respected as the people whom God used to convert the world.

St. Paul, in the second reading, tells us that as the Jews were used by God to convert the Gentiles, so the Gentiles will be used to convert the Jews. In other words, when we Christians, Jews and Gentiles, start living our faith, not merely avoiding sins but really loving each other as ourselves and God above all else, then the Jews will see this and become Christian. Indeed, not only the Jews but the whole world. The very best way to preach the Gospel is to live the Gospel. No one would be able to resist joining the Church if we all were shining forth as the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

August 13, 2011 - Saturday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

There is something humorous about the image in the first reading. Joshua tells the people that they should decide if they will worship the Lord or some other god. The humor is not really visible from our perspective; perhaps the angels are laughing though. We human beings have this feeling, this attitude toward God, as if we were on a shopping trip, trying to decide between the yellow umbrella and the blue one. Even if we do choose the Lord, we are tempted to think that he ought to be grateful.

But God is not running for office. He does not need our vote. If no one on earth ever worshipped him, he would continue perfectly happy forever. He does not in any sense need us, but we do need him. There are no other options, no other gods to follow. We could worship other gods, but they will do nothing for us because they are not real.

God is the only God. He is God above and God below and God of all the earth. We cannot have a revolution against God. We cannot impeach him. He is the fundamental fact of reality, and we are weak creatures in a universe he created. So it is humorous that we humans feel like we are towering over him with the power to choose for or against, weighing the benefits versus the costs. We might as well decide whether 4 is going to be our number after 3 as decide whether the Lord will be our God.

Joshua warns the people of Israel that by choosing reality and leaving behind ignorance they are doing something dangerous: never again may they return to the false gods who do nothing for them. A reasonable person might ask why anyone, having entered into reality, would forsake it for a lie.

We know, since we have read the rest of the story, that the Israelites often did forsake the Lord and worship false and empty gods. They did it for the same reason we do: the Lord is not doing what we want, he is not our tame pet. Whether we disobey God for a fruit or money or whatever, we are afraid that he will not provide what we need; we are afraid that he is our enemy. On the contrary, if the Lord did need selling points here is one: he loves us.

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August 11, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Clare, virgin

Today's Readings

The first reading today which is taken from the book of Joshua. Moses died at the end of Deuteronomy, and Joshua is the new leader of the Hebrews. Perhaps some of the Hebrews doubted Joshua, thinking that no one could fill Moses’ shoes, that no one else could work the miracles that Moses did, but Moses never worked any miracles. Moses did not part the Red Sea. Moses did not free the Hebrews from Egypt. Moses did not make manna appear. Moses did not do any of these things. God parted the Red Sea. God freed the Hebrews. God made manna appear.

Moses was the instrument through whom God chose to act. Now God would act through Joshua. The Hebrews arrive at the Jordan river. The priests walk in carrying the Ark of the Covenant, the precious box containing the 10 Commandments, a jar of manna, and the symbol of the priesthood. The priests walk into the river and the water stops flowing. What was there flows away and no more water comes. The people of Israel, about 2 million of them all together, walk right into the Promised Land. Then the priests walk out of the river bank, and the river begins to flow again.

Why does God do this? Why did he act through these ordinary men and women? He reveals his wisdom. By using humans as prophets, he rid the world of idols. The pagans knew that there were gods or a God, so they made statues or found rocks or trees and said they were gods, but the people of Israel saw God act through a person who they knew was not God. People might convince themselves that a rock is a god. The rock never proves them wrong.

We could never make such a mistake about a human person. Either they will be bad enough that they are clearly not God, or they will be good enough to say, often and emphatically, “I am not God.” It would be impossible that any man who allowed others to believe he was God would not soon prove by his actions that they were wrong. Impossible, unless, of course, he actually was God.

August 9, 2011 - Tuesday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

Jesus puts a child before us today and recommends him as our example. How beautiful that he did not merely talk about children in general. Instead, he called a child over and placed him in the midst of the disciples. The disciples got to really look at the child and consider how they should imitate him.

We do not have the benefit of having a child in our midst today, so we will have to use our imaginations. Do not imagine an older child, already too much like an adult. Imagine a 3 year old. This is our ideal, not in his selfishness, but in his sincerity, not in his naiveté but in the complete trust he places in his parents. A toddler has not yet learned about his parents’ imperfections.

What are the imperfections of a parent? Since every parent is subject to original sin, they are selfish. Every parent fails to do right by their child, not even considering bad parents who do cruel things to their children. Even the best parent is not able to protect their child from all the dangers of the world. Growing up means realizing that our parents sometimes do what is wrong and will occasionally fail even when they try to do what is right.

However, our Father in heaven is perfect. “He will never fail you or forsake you.” Everything we have learned since the age of 3 about mistrusting this world and depending on ourselves should be forgotten with regard to God. He alone can be trusted completely; we do not need to hold back anything. “He will never fail you or forsake you.” Not on purpose and not by accident. We do not need to be afraid or suspicious. We can completely give up our cynicism. The world is a tough place, but in God, finally, we have a safe haven that cannot be defeated.

What a relief it will be to live once again the carefree life of a child! We do not need to care about silly things like who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. We get to be a little one. We get to grow up all over again, learning to share and help each other. We do not need to compete against each other anymore, not for money, not for our Father’s love. There is more than enough to go around.

August 8, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Dominic, priest

Today's Readings

Some people, beginners in the spiritual life, see the commandments as an external imposition, as a law stopping them from doing what they really want to do. They doubt the commandments and want the Church to change its teachings. What I am saying is not for such beginners, nor is it for people who are already living the perfect life. I am speaking now to those in the middle, who believe the commandments but do not follow them.

This life is absurd. We believe that God is God. We believe that he loves us. We even believe that his commands are not unreasonable. As Moses says, “What does the LORD, your God, ask of you but … your own good?” The commands of God, even if they are difficult, are for our own good. We want to follow the commandments. At least, we want to be the kind of people who follow the commandments; we want to be saints, but we fall so far short. Once a Christian has begun to completely trust God’s commands, they do not instantly begin to obey. We are even aware that we are living nonsense, but we continue. Something more is needed. We have had the conversion of intellect, but we need the conversion of will.

To some extent we will always do the very thing we hate. We suffer the consequences of original sin, including a weak will, but, like a weak muscle, it would benefit from exercise. It is strengthened by continually choosing what is right. We have to start acting in a logical way. If we want to be a certain kind of person, we must do whatever will make us the kind of person we want to be. Every time we make the right choice, our will is strengthened and it is a little easier to choose what is right the next time.

But progressing further toward God it is not merely a matter of gritting our teeth and being good. God wants to help us. We can be assisted by prayer, especially acts of Love, promising to obey God, and we can be further assisted by keeping the ideal before our minds. When we are tempted to act against what we know is true, we can also be tempted to do what is right. If we remember who we want to become, the beautiful life that we truly want can draw us more powerfully than the world, the flesh, and the Devil. It can be easy: just imagine what you would do if you were perfect, then do it anyway.

August 7, 2011 - Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

St. Paul makes an amazing claim in this part of his letter to the Romans, and it is not said in a careless way. He says that if his people, the Israelites, could all be converted, he would be willing to go to Hell himself. Of course, his being cut off from Christ would not help them in any way, but the sentiment is clear. He is sincerely saddened that, although tens of thousands of Israelites became Christians, the majority did not.

He makes the point that Israel, more than any other nation, ought to come to believe in Jesus: they were the people he spent 2000 years preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ, they are the ones who wrote the Old Testament; they lived through all the events contained therein; they were the ones who received the Law; all the great prophets were Israelites; and, above all, Jesus himself was a Jew. The Jews preserved the promises of God for 100 generations, but most failed to believe when the promises were fulfilled in their midst.

But it is not that the word of God has failed. God was speaking, but they were not listening. We know this because so many people did hear the word of God and come to believe in Jesus Christ. There was a word to hear, and it was a powerful word, strong enough to change the world. If some people did not hear the word, they were not listening.

In our first reading today, Elijah was listening. He was at the end of his rope, so he climbed a mountain and went in a cave and waited to hear the word of God. Along comes a strong wind blowing rocks around, picking up boulders and throwing them down. Then there was an earthquake. Then there was a fire, a forest fire perhaps, or maybe a meteor crashing to earth. But Elijah was not fooled by the strong wind or the earthquake or the fire. Many people would be fooled. Many people try to figure out what a tornado or an earthquake mean. Elijah knows to wait in silence. Then he hears the still, small voice, the tiny whispering sound, and he recognizes the voice of God.

If we are going to hear the word of God, we need silence. How else do we expect to hear the voice of God? We certainly cannot hear him if we are talking. We cannot hear him over the sound of the television. We modern people are always talking or watching television or going to the movies or getting in our cars and turning on the radio. When exactly does God have a chance to tell us what we need to hear? We will not shove it down our throats. He will not shout over the radio or TV. He will not interrupt us. He will continue speaking his word forever, but we will not hear it until we stop and listen.

We need to spend time in silence, listening to the word of God. We need more than a minute or two, while our mind is still full of the day’s thoughts; we need significant time in silence, until we can hear the voice of God. At first, silence is difficult, but then it becomes addictive. Eventually we learn to recognize God’s whispers, which we hear not with our ears but deep in our souls.

Listening patiently for God’s word is not wasted time. It is the opposite of wasting time. As we enter into the silence, waiting patiently to hear God’s voice, we can begin by knowing that he exists. Jesus says in the gospel today “It is I. Do not be afraid.” This is a logical translation of the text, but it is not the most literal translation. This translation implies that Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry. It’s not a ghost; it’s just me.” What Jesus actually says is more profound, “I am. Do not be afraid.” When Jesus sees the apostles, they are afraid, so he reminds them of this most important fact: “I am. I exist.” Jesus exists, therefore we do not need to be afraid. We ought to walk through this world with an unshakable confidence. There is no reason to be afraid, not really afraid. I am not saying that bad things will never happen. Bad things do happen, but Jesus continues existing. He continues loving us. No matter what, Jesus Christ loves us.

The apostles were afraid because they thought that they were alone. They thought that they were alone and a ghost was coming toward them on the water. Jesus reminds them that they are never alone. We are never alone. When we have problems, God knows all about them. When we sit in silence waiting for God, God is sitting there with us. God is never far off. It might seem like he is miles away, but he is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He knows our needs, our burdens, and our fears better than we could ever know them. It is not as if God is busy, as if we are waiting in silence for God to be ready for us. We are waiting in silence with God for us to be ready for God.

This is Christian prayer. Many Christians do not seem to know what prayer really is. It is waiting in silence to hear God speak, waiting with God in silence, knowing that God is next to us, that God is in us. Prayer is not about getting God to do what we want, but finding out what God wants. God has a word for each of us, a word that could change us, that could make us who we wish we were. This word of God is not without power, but it will only have effect if we can quiet ourself down long enough to hear it.

August 5, 2011 - Friday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

Moses, in the first reading today, tells the Israelites that they have been blessed to be so close to God. They heard the voice of God speaking to them from the fire. God was willing to condescend, to come down and be with, his people. He drove out the nations before them. He gave them a law so that they would know his will.

If Moses was amazed by how close God was to the Israelites, how much more should we be amazed by the Lord’s invitation today! Jesus invites us to be as close to him as possible: he invites us to suffer and die with him. What else could be the meaning of these words: “Take up your cross [your] cross and follow me”?

How beautifully our Lord entices us today. He begins with the invitation, “Whoever wishes to come after me”. What a beautiful invitation! It is so casual, almost offhand: “Whoever wishes.” He does not tell us what we ought to do or must do; he does not command us with harsh words. He is simply relating the logical consequences. If someone happens to want to follow him, they will have to do what he did. No one can follow another person without going where they went. That is the meaning of “follow”. Where did Jesus go? He went to the Cross.

We have this possibility of being so close to God. Why would we not take advantage of the opportunity? Fear, mostly. We are afraid of suffering and death; we are afraid of giving up what makes us happy in this world. As the old saying says, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Of course, it is more like a flock of birds in the bush, millions of birds in the bush, but still, a bird in the hand is something definite.

Then we look at this bird in our hands and we realize that it is a sickly, ugly thing. The worldly happiness that we would have to give up is not really making us so happy after all. Nothing can make us as happy as God. If suffering and death could make us happy, there is nothing to be afraid of. To suffer with Jesus, to die with Jesus, who suffered and died for us, to be united to Jesus by these unbreakable bonds, this is the only true happiness.

August 4, 2011 - Memorial of Saint John Mary Vianney, priest

Today's Readings

The readings today both feature a mistake made by someone close to God. In both cases the mistake seems to us so minor that it is not even clear what exactly the problem is, but God reacts very strongly in both cases. Moses’ mistake might have been the words he spoke or the fact that he hit the rock twice when he should have hit it once or both of these things. Moses’ punishment was that he was never able to enter the Promised Land. Peter’s mistake was rebuking Jesus, but his rebuke sounds more like pleading with Jesus, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” For this statement, surely said with tears, Peter was called “Satan” by Jesus.

God seems to be especially harsh to those closest to him. As St. Theresa of Avila once said to God, “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few.” We expect, thinking in worldly terms, that God would treat us who try to follow him better than those who do not, yet often the opposite is true: those who follow God suffer while people who ignore God have it easy. The standard that God sets for those close to him is higher than for those far away. If someone other than Peter had expressed such a desire that Jesus would not die, it might have been looked on favorably. If one of the other Israelites had so much faith that they struck a rock and expected water to come out, God might have overlooked that they struck the rock twice.

God wants us all to be perfect, and that is a very high standard. We would be crushed under failure if we had to begin there. Instead, God holds a lower standard for each of us, one that is just slightly out of our reach. As we progress in the spiritual life, we will find that God’s standard is always just a little higher than where we are: never more than we can do but more than we are currently doing. God is perfect, and he wants us to be with him. Through his ever higher standards, he is leading us to himself.

August 3, 2011 - Wednesday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

About a year after the plagues of Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea, the Israelites thought that God would be unable to take over the land to which he brought them. These people had walked with the water like a wall to their right and to their left, but they thought that the Amalekites looked pretty scary, too tough for God. Did they think that he was only a god of running away and not a god of conquering? Did they think that he was just lucky the first time around?

The Israelites were promised a land flowing with milk and honey, and the scouts found that the land was exactly what they had been promised, but they were too afraid to enter the promised land. I myself, when I think of it, have often failed to conquer a land I have scouted out. Perhaps you also have had this experience. I have several times in my life reconnoitered the Kingdom of Heaven: on a retreat, in a dream, in prayer, I have caught a glimpse of what is possible. The Kingdom is beautiful, and wonderful, and everything we have been promised, more than words can describe, yet I continue to stand in the desert, afraid to conquer, afraid of all the Amorites and Hittites that stand in my way.

God’s solution is perfect. The Israelites will wander in the desert for 40 years, until all those who remember Egypt have died. It was the memory of slavery that prevented them from marching in bravely. The entire people will be renewed when a generation is brought up in the desert. We too, before we can enter into the land we have glimpsed, must be renewed. We were slaves to this world, and that slavery has ruined us. We have been freed, but we can never be a free people until there is a renewal, until the old generation, our old self, has dropped dead in the desert.

The next generation will grow up in the desert with no memory of how “great” we had it in Egypt. The new generation would never return to slavery; they are free from their birth. Unlike the Israelites, this renewal will not take place through physical birth but by spiritual rebirth. We have to be born again so that we can be raised again in the desert. By this renewal of our minds, we will have the faith to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

August 2, 2011 - Tuesday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

Those who want to be leaders are often bad leaders. The qualities we seek in a truly great leader (thoughtfulness, humility, listening, recognizing the talents of others) are not the qualities that make a person want to be a leader. Our readings today do not present for our consideration the corrupt leader, the person who seeks power for their own gain. We see instead people who sincerely believe that they ought to be leaders.

Miriam and Aaron insist that they ought to be leaders also. “They complained, ‘Is it through Moses alone that the LORD speaks? Does he not speak through us also?’” How amazing that these words, spoken over 3000 years ago, sound like they are from a recent brochure calling for a reorganization of the Church: women priests and voting for bishops, etc. It has often been observed that the kind of women who want to be ordained priests even though the Church declares this to be impossible are not the kind of people who ought to be priests anyway.

No one thinking rightly would want to take leadership of God’s people. The ideal leader is reluctant, seeking nothing for themself. They only assume leadership when they are forced into it, are faithful to the task as a burden, and give it up as soon as possible. This attitude is so well established as the ideal that many people who actually want to be leaders try to fake reluctance.

Why is reluctance such an essential characteristic of good leadership? Because none of us is equal to the task. If anyone thinks that they know exactly what the Church ought to do, ought to say, ought to be, their pride is equal parts ridiculous and scary. “If I were pope…” some people say, as if the pope just does whatever he wants. All of us are blind; if we try to be leaders we will be “blind guides of the blind.”

True leadership requires vision from God. God only gives us the vision we need for his call to us. There are many roles of leadership, such as parents, pastors, and teachers. No one should seek to go beyond God’s call; no one should want to go beyond God’s call. We are on a ship, sailing for heaven. Leadership requires knowing that nothing in our natural capacity prepares us for the supernatural journey, but trusting that God will reveal to us all that we need to know.

August 1, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, bishop and doctor of the Church

Today's Readings

Walking on water is a symbol of the spiritual life. We wish it were otherwise; we wish that we could find solid ground, a place where we could stand on our own, but such a place does not exist in the spiritual life. The boat is a symbol of the simplistic spiritual life, the life of spiritual infants. To grow up in faith requires stepping out of the boat onto the water, leaving behind every support except faith.

Jesus asks Peter this key question: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Peter does not answer because there is no answer. He was standing on the water. He sees the strong wind, but what does that matter? A stormy sea is no more difficult to walk on than a still one. The wind is a symbol of temptation. There is no reason why we should fall for temptation, but we do. When we stand on the water, invited out there by Jesus, we have many temptations to doubt that we can live the spiritual life, but the essential fact remains: we are. It is not until we begin to doubt that we begin to sink.

No matter how fiercely the winds blow, we should remember the simple tautology: so long as we stand on the water, we are standing on the water. So long as we are faithful to God, we are being faithful to God. Questions like, “How long can I keep this up?” are meaningless. It only matters that we are being faithful right now. The future and the past are relatively unimportant in the spiritual life. “How long have I been faithful?” and “How long can I be faithful?” are not appropriate questions.

Peter, even in the moment of doubt, teaches us what we ought to do when we begin to sink into sin. “Lord, save me!”, he screams. He said this as soon as he was “beginning to sink”. In other words, he did not fall into the water right away. The temptation tells him that he cannot stand on water, and it is a self-fulfilling temptation. The water begins to cover his feet; he could have despaired, but he immediately calls out to the Lord.

While we stand on the water, we should laugh at the lying wind. When we have believed the lies and begun to sink, we should not wait until we are underwater but turn immediately to the Lord and call for help.