26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

There is a common enough phrase in military circles; ‘rank has its privileges’.  It means that based on someone’s rank, they are somehow entitled to special treatment, special favour; the higher the rank, the more the privileges.

In our gospel passage from St. Luke today, we hear the parable of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus.  Among many other things, this parable which Jesus shares with a group of Pharisees who Luke says, ‘loved money’, speaks to the illusion that worldly position somehow has a connection to God’s view of a person’s value.

The rich man in this parable identifies himself as one of the chosen people, a son of Abraham, when he speaks to ‘Father Abraham’.  He is expecting that this identification as a son of Abraham is enough to save him from the torments of Hades, or at the very least, should be of some value in asking that he receive some merciful relief (cool water) from Lazarus who had been starving at the rich man’s gate.  In fact, he never appears to recognize that his time of privilege and comfort is over – he continues to ask ‘Father’ Abraham for favours.  “…send Lazarus to my father’s house…”  He seems to be stuck in his thinking of privilege.

At no time, does the rich man acknowledge that, as a son of Abraham, he had a responsibility to Lazarus during his lifetime; the rich man could not plead ignorance because he even knew who Lazarus was – he spoke of him by name! He never acknowledges that as a child of Israel, he had been given the law and the prophets!  He had completely forgotten that the heart of the law was mercy and compassion; and in the heart of that law, he was to care for the suffering and marginalized, the dying and the poor.  In other words, according to the law of God handed down through Moses and the prophets, he should not have neglected Lazarus, who was suffering and starving right in front of him. 

Despite all of his wealth and comfort, his power and privilege, he couldn’t even spare the scraps of his table for another ‘son of Abraham’ who was dying at his very gate.  He was caught up in his own indulgence, secure in the thought that he was blessed with abundance and so blessed because he was a ‘son of Abraham’, that nothing was expected of him.  Lazarus wasn’t his problem; Lazarus obviously wasn’t blessed by God because he was poor!

An ironic twist here is that in the culture that Jesus is relating this parable, and quite often today too, people looked upon wealth and abundance as a sign of God’s favour.  The rich were blessed by God; which would conversely mean the poor did not enjoy God’s favour – they were not blessed by God. 

Yet, Jesus in the parable places the poor man Lazarus at the rich man’s gate.  God places one who is ‘not blessed’ in front of the one who ‘is blessed’; why?  So that the rich man would have an opportunity to care for the poor; so that the rich man could truly be blessed in providing for and sharing with the one who was apparently not granted material blessings.  The poor man Lazarus becomes an opportunity of grace for the rich man.  The poor man hasn’t received a blessing – the poor man is a blessing.

But the rich man ignores Lazarus and any grace and blessing he might receive from God; not just once or twice, but apparently through his entire life.  His preoccupation with wealth and possession becomes his downfall. In essence, his perceived blessing in life, becomes his curse in death.

This parable should serve as a wake up call to Christians, because it explodes the myth that eternity with God is not based on what we call ourselves or how we perceive ourselves to be blessed by God.  Eternity with God is determined by how we live out our claim to be His children.  God offers the free gift of salvation, but if we do not live in right relation with Him and with each other, then we aren’t really open to receiving the blessing of that gift!

Whether it is a person or a practice, we all have a ‘Lazarus’ situation in our lives.  If we look deeply enough, we can see people who have perhaps been overlooked, who need our help in one way or another.  Perhaps we have neglected our spouse; as a parent, maybe we have not spent time with our children.  Maybe we have a co-worker who is ignored and isolated on the job; maybe a classmate at school who isn’t part of the ‘in crowd’ because they don’t have the latest fashions or gadgets.

We can see things we have neglected in our own faith journey; devotional prayer; study of Sacred Scripture; participating in the Sacraments; following the teachings of the Church, because we were too busy focusing on material wealth or social standing.  Maybe these ‘Lazarus moments’ of grace have passed us by.

The good news is that we can still open up to these moments.  We can open up our eyes, physical and spiritual, to see the presence of Jesus in those around us in need. We can share our blessings of time and possessions and our very selves with those who need us most.  We can open up the gates of our hearts, and to go out and meet the Lazarus’s of this world – and in so doing, welcome Jesus back in through those same gates into our hearts and lives.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

This past week has seen some startling news headlines concerning Pope Francis and the teaching of the Church.  For some, if we rely solely on those headlines, it signals a ‘change’ in the direction of the Church’s teaching – maybe even, some news commentators excitedly suggest, a change in the Church’s doctrine.  They trumpet a headline like, ‘Pope says Church can’t be obsessed with abortion’ and launch into articles which, if we read them, quite obviously show that the writers either didn’t hear or read fully what the Pope said, or (even more obviously) that the writers or analysts do not grasp the Church’s teaching to begin with.

This is where I often caution friends who get excited about these news articles; as someone who worked in the media a number of years ago, I remind my friends that news media are in the business of making money.  They sell advertising and they sell subscriptions, and those sales are based on the size of their audience.  The audience grows with the more sensational headline or commentary – accuracy and truth have little to do with it;completely factual accounts of what exactly has transpired or what has been said are irrelevant compared to audience ‘reach’..

It was interesting to see reporters and commentators and announcers go into all sorts of contortions to say the Pope’s words in one lengthy interview signalled a change in the Church’s position on moral issues; and the next day the Pope, in an address to doctors, reiterated the Church’s teaching that abortion is murder. The silence was deafening as far as the coverage of the latter address was concerned.

If any commentator or analyst or anyone else wants to know really what the Church’s position is or will be on all manner of doctrinal or moral or faith issues, then all they have to do is read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. That is the Church’s teaching, and Pope Francis has said nothing, in any address or homily or interview to contradict the Church’s teaching in any matter.

When the secular media or anyone else says the Church is obsessed with certain issues like abortion or same-sex marriage or married priests, it is because that is all the media or special interest groups ever want to talk about in relation to the Church.  They don’t want to talk about the Church’s teachings on social justice, on interpersonal relations, on mercy, charity or love.  They only want to talk about the single most burning issue on their minds – not the Church’s or even the majority of Catholics in the world.

Pope Francis , like Pope Benedict before him and like Blessed Pope John Paul II before him, has emphasized that Catholics are called to follow all the Church’s teachings – even if they make us uncomfortable; we are to reach out in love to all people, welcoming them into our Church; we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sick and the dying.  We are to love the sinner, but hate the sin; but we are also to protect the widow and orphan, follow the commandments of God, proclaim the Gospel and live out the teaching of Jesus handed down to us by the Apostles through the Church.

We are reminded, as were Jesus’ first followers, that we are either faithful to what has been given us or not.  We follow God’s will, or our own.  We are invited to enter into His kingdom and given the means of entering it; or we can refuse to follow the means of entering and go our own way.

No amount of media coverage, commentary, or opinion is going to alter this basic truth; we choose to follow the Church’s teaching or we choose to follow worldly opinion and desires.  We can’t do both.  And this is where this Sunday’s Gospel from St. Luke (16:1-13) emphasizes this point.

Jesus says, ”Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”  And He goes on to say, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

No amount of ink or coverage will change the Church’s position on faith and morals.  No amount of commentary will change what Pope Francis is teaching, because the Church’s position and the Holy Father’s position are the same.

We are to be children of light, people of God; following God’s will by serving and loving Him, and serving and loving each other.  Nothing more, nothing less.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

If there is ever an event that can cause the most drastic swing of emotions, it would have to be when a parent loses or at least ‘thinks’ they have lost their child.  The absolute sense of dread and panic; of sheer terror is, if not the worst, then certainly among the worst things one could ever experience.  But the flood of emotions experienced when we find that child again; relief, exasperation, and joy are just as intense. We don’t care how they ‘got back’; we’re only glad that they are back.

It is at these times that we realize it is not important what we have; what we own; we would give it all up just to have our child with us; to keep them close; because that relationship between a parent and their child is what is most important; it is the relationship that makes a family; it is that relationship that fills us with joy.

We are presented in today’s Gospel passage from St. Luke with three parables from Jesus, who is trying to , once again, explain to some of the Pharisees why it is so important that he associates with the lost and the broken, the outcasts;  the ones whom the Pharisees refer to as ‘sinners’.  It’s interesting to note the wording of the comment by the Pharisees:  they say” This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  That phrase, ‘this fellow welcomes’ would give us a hint that Jesus is actually not just a guest of honour, but actually hosted gatherings; it’s not that he happened to be at public gatherings, like a parish potluck dinner and the ‘sinners’ happen to show up:  Jesus would host events at which he encouraged and welcomed those who had drifted away from their faith, and from a relationship with God to come back.

In relating these three parables, Jesus says the return of those who have distanced themselves from God, who have broken their relationship with God, is indeed a cause for rejoicing, not just in a family, or local parish church, but in heaven itself: Jesus states it quite plainly: “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the Angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  If there was ever a passage in Scripture that shouts encouragement for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, this is it.

Each of the three parables seems to hold a graduating degree of ‘fault’ on the part of that which is lost: we have an innocent little lamb that just kind of wanders off for no particular reason; we have a coin that is ‘misplaced’; but it is in the third parable, the one we have come to call the Prodigal Son – or perhaps better The Loving Father – where the responsibility of becoming ‘lost’ really rests with the conscious decisions of the one who wanders away.  It’s really quite a study in our relationship with our Creator, and is just as relevant to our society today as it was in first century Palestine.

The younger son is not interested in a relationship with his father; “give me my share of the property that will belong to me,” He’s talking about an inheritance – well, ordinarily to receive an inheritance, the original owner of the property has to die.  In essence, what this younger son is saying to his father is, ‘I wish you were dead. I have no interest in you or being part of your ‘family’; I just want your property that would come to me if you were no longer around.  I want what you have – I just don’t want you.”  How often do we hear that echoed in our own society; a society that is all too happy to take everything that God has provided, but rejects a relationship with God – at times even rejects the existence of God.

Well, the father gives this younger son half of his property, an unusual move in the culture of Jesus time, and as we read, the younger son takes this abundance and squanders it all, living a life completely counter to his culture, his religion, and his family’s honour.

And when he finally hits rock bottom, the Gospel says, he comes ‘to his senses.’ And decides to return home; but it’s not really for any high-minded ideal or deep sense of conviction; it’s because he’s broke, and hungry; and he knows his father will at the very least feed him.  And as he is on his return home, it is the father who sees him from a distance and runs out to meet him; the son has a speech he has prepared; a set of conditions to offer his father in return for his coming home – but the father doesn’t let him complete his speech (especially the part about treating him like one of the servants) but in joy makes a tremendous show of welcoming his wayward son home.  In effect, he says to the boy, that it’s not important to him why his son has returned; it only matters that he has returned home and the father welcomes him back into relationship.

Even the elder son starts to drift away from relationship; he complains to his father about all the work he has done and how his father hasn’t given him a small goat in exchange for his efforts to have a little party;  the elder son is sounding like he expects something from the father – as if the father ‘owes’ him ‘something’ in exchange for his years of loyal service; but he too misses the point; that everything the father has to give him is his for the asking; but what is really important is the relationship between the father and his children.

We may be tempted to view this parable only in relation to those who have committed some great grievous and public sin; or those who in some very visible way have broken faith with God and with the Church; or those whose lifestyles we may ‘judge’ as not in keeping with the Gospel values.

But the truth is, every time we say or do anything that is contrary to the teachings of Christ and His Church; each time we sin, even in a small way, we distance ourselves from God; we turn away from that closeness of that relationship with God.  We take the gifts that God has given us, and in effect behave like the younger son in the parable of the prodigal and say, ‘I’m more interested in what I can get from you, than being close to you; I will take everything you have to give me, but I don’t want a relationship with you because that suggests commitment and changing my focus from me to you.”

Fortunately for us, God is like the father in this parable; yes, the son has to make the first move, deciding he wants to return home, but that’s the extent of his work in this ‘reunion’.  The father is constantly watching the horizon, waiting for the day that his child will come back to him;

However we stray or wander away from God, He always waits for us to return.  Whenever we admit our own failings, and turn back to Him, to re-enter that relationship with Him, He rejoices with the angels.  He runs to meet us, and embraces us, and He says to each of us, “I’m just glad you’re home.”

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

23rd Sunday Ordinary Time

Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel from St. Luke (14: 25-33) are pretty stark: “ whoever comes to me and does not hate their father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even their life itself cannot be my disciple.”  He doesn’t leave room for discussion; he doesn’t back away from this.  Putting God first is non-negotiable.  .  Jesus uses the word ‘hate’ to illustrate that when it comes to God, we cannot love anyone or anything more than God if we expect or hope to spend eternity in heaven.

To enter completely into relationship with God, we cannot put anything else first:  God must be first – our possessions: our jobs and our social positions; even our family and friends didn’t create and sanctify and redeem us:  God did; and He continues to do that through the action of His Holy Spirit, through the sacrifice of Jesus;  our response is to be detached from anything that would prevent us entering into that relationship.  A relationship where God puts us above all creation – more important to Him than the angels and everything else in the universe: so important that he invites us into the most intimate relationship of love; the relationship of being His own children.

If we had a condition of employment that said ”you have to put your job ahead of your immortal soul,” or perhaps a club membership that said,” give up faith in God and turn your attention only to the club activities”  how would we respond?  Wouldn’t we find that kind of an expectation very wrong?

If we had family members or friends who insisted, “you must put me ahead of God in your life.” Wouldn’t we find that equally dysfunctional?

Yet, we have a world and a society that pushes the notion that love and worship of God, and obedience to His laws and commandments are counterproductive; even an infringement on our rights – and this is the big lie of the new ‘atheism’ which is rapidly spreading through the public forum in our own country.  Even something as basic as the “Ten Commandments” is decried as ‘restrictive’ or ‘backward’ or even ‘discriminatory’.    This thinking takes something which is totally good ( commandments from God to help us grow and keep in closer relationship with Him and others) and turns it on its head; turning it, at least in the eyes of our society, from a positive into a negative:

The sixth commandment; you shall not commit adultery – society sees that as an infringement on the rights of ‘consenting adults’

The third commandment; you shall keep the Lord’s day holy – that’s pretty relative now, because we have all of these activities that are now scheduled on Sunday – no time for church or worship:  well these activities don’t schedule themselves – how long would they be scheduled on Sunday mornings if families insisted that they would only participate later in the day on not on Sunday mornings at all?

The fifth commandment; you shall not kill – well this one seems negotiable too, particularly when it comes to abortion and euthanasia;  the lifestyle and choices of one or two individuals seem to be the main factor in determining whether another person even gets to live.

In all of these examples and more, we show how we love God less and less as a society:  A society that doesn’t want to move closer to God because it means putting the other ahead of ourselves; it also means expressing love in its truest sense.

Humans over the past decades have really changed the meaning of a lot of words, and perhaps none more than the word ‘love’.  Love has come to mean romance or ‘feelings’ or an emotional response to a specific stimulus; physical attraction that might last two years, two months, or only 24 hours.

But real, true love is not a feeling or emotional response.  True love is a conscious decision; a conscious choice.  Sept. 5th was the feast day of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, the founder of the Missionaries of Charity.  There was no one in the 20th century who more visibly illustrated this conscious choice of love than this dynamic woman.  Who would think in the 20th century that love would be encountered in the filth and squalor of the slums of Calcutta; or that love would be revealed in the diseased bodies of lepers; or that love would be inspired in gathering the dying up off of the sides of roads or in the middle of a crowded street?

But that is exactly where Blessed Teresa found God; she discovered and encouraged others to discover Jesus in ‘the distressing disguise’ of the poor.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us in a rather back-handed way, to love God above all else.  But it is not a one-sided affair;  it is not, as atheists would have us believe, that we express a love to a non-existent ideal, or that we express love and devotion to a kind of cosmic ‘Santa Claus’ ; it is a return of love to the One who loves us above everything that He created. He loved us enough to give up everything for us; His divinity in taking on our humanity; His only Son in exchange for our reconciliation with Him; whenever we consider that we might express love for a God who did all of that for us, all we have to do is look upon the crucifix – to contemplate the Holy Eucharist as we share Christ’s Body and Blood- to hear God saying in these acts, “I love you too”.

Although his words in this Gospel are stark and shocking, there is nothing here that Jesus did not live out by example; as a human being he put everything, even His own divinity secondary to His love of the Father, including His own life; this is what he says it means to be a true disciple; and that sounds pretty daunting.

Those who would be His disciples must take up their cross daily and ‘follow’ Him.  He is not suggesting we take up our cares and sufferings and hurts and rejection by the world and wander along on our own; He leads by His own example; He is not asking us to do anything that He has not been willing to do Himself;   He says follow me – He leads the way, making the path for us; uniting our experiences with His own.  He brings us along to the Father, uniting in love to God, who is love, the creatures that His love has made.  We have a choice to place our own desires or feelings or preferences above God; or to place God above all else in our lives

But He won’t force us; He invites us to accept that the only way to truly enter into His life is to follow Jesus’ example of total, selfless love; but it is not negotiable – we either accept it, or we don’t.    But before we make that choice, we need to remember that God loves each of us unconditionally – and that too is non-negotiable.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!