30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sometimes we read today’s Gospel passage about the tax collector and the Pharisee in the Temple with an air of ‘superiority’ – especially if we are reading it in Church.  We might think we are ‘better’ than the Pharisee. We might read it with a sense of humility, being more humble than the tax collector.  In either view, we need to understand not only the context of the parable Jesus relates, but the heart of the message.

This was not particularly a “swipe” at the Pharisees as a general group; nor was Jesus suggesting that what tax collectors in Israel were doing to their own people in extorting money and living opulent lifestyles was acceptable.  He was using figures familiar to the people in their own culture as reference points to make His point.

What was His point? St. Luke relates how Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Pharisees were a lay movement concerned with preserving the law of Moses and ensuring that that law, which was as much a part of their religion, history and culture as anything, was lived out amongst the people.  As with any group, there would be those who carried things to extremes, considering themselves to be the final word and paying extreme attention to details, losing site of the big picture; or those who considered themselves more important than the message that they were to be delivering and living out.  We can see this reflected in our own society – every organization has within it, people who get so caught up in the rules and regulations that they don’t pay attention to what the ‘end point’ of those rules and regulations is.

What this suggests is that not all, or even most Pharisees were legalistic and overbearing – it suggests there were some, just like any other group today.

With the tax collector, those who collaborated with the Roman occupiers, their particular ‘trade’ was considered traitorous to the other children of Israel. They over-collected taxes to pad their own lifestyles, and by associating with the Romans, made themselves unfit to participate in Temple activities. Many used the force of Roman troops that were part of their ‘office’ to extort money from their own people, and many lived only concerned with their own wealth, comfort and privilege.

The example suggests, again, that while many of the tax collectors fit this description, not all of them did.

Maybe if we look at our own modern culture, we could see similar examples in our own secular world; we could substitute other fields for our principle characters; maybe people who consider themselves better than others because they belong to the ‘right crowd’ – religiously or secularly- versus people who have isolated themselves through their own actions, and recognize they are isolated.

Think about government agencies; the popular myth might be that they treat you like a number, not a person – and yet when we deal individually with the people who work in these places, we find they are people just like us; maybe at work they go out of their way to help others; outside work they are generous and caring.  We could say there is a stereotype, but not all , or even most fit that stereotype.

We might say church organizations are full of people who are concerned only with processes and not people, with rules rather than compassion; and yet we find that when we deal with these people one on one, again we find that very few actually fit that stereotype.

At the opposite end of the scale, we may think of jail inmates with contempt; as dangerous, hard people.  Yet we may find that individually they may be compassionate, generous and humble.  Yet again, perhaps very few fit the stereotype.

In this parable, Jesus speaks to all of us regarding our own opinions of our own righteousness before God, and our contempt of others.  We are to diligently guard against falling into this mindset ourselves.  He did not provide this parable as a means of patting ourselves on the back and pointing at others with contempt.  The point of this parable was to remind us all of what our internal disposition should be whenever we approach God.

We need to recognize that everything is gift; undeserved, unearned, freely-given blessings from God.  We have no right to demand or feel entitled to God’s grace because of anything we have done or said in our lives.  If we participate in devotional practices, we do it out of love and for honour of God; not because God will be impressed with us or ‘owe’ us anything after.  When we approach God, it should be as one who recognizes that we have been given far more than we could possible earn or deserve – we have been given the opportunity to live in relationship with the Creator of all.

It should be in a spirit of humility, recognizing our own limitations, that we approach God; God who is always willing to forgive, to provide, to love us, no matter who we are, what we have done, or where we have been.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Given the particular period Jesus was speaking in when he made this remark as quoted in St. Luke’s Gospel (18:8), this may have been considered a rhetorical question.  In our current place in human history, perhaps it is much more pointed and direct.

I would expect that if we were to review the last two thousand years, regardless of culture, nationality or economics, there has long been general concensus among the world’s people that there is a Divine order; that there is much more beyond what we can see here, now, in front of us.  There have been times when particular groups in specific locations have tried to drive God from the general consciousness and the public forum, but it is only very recently that there seems to be a widespread, common and concentrated effort to relegate faith or any faith practice to the fringes of society, to the realm of superstition, imagination or fantasy.

Even among so-called Christians, there seems to be a rush to disprove the wonder and extraordinary elements of the life of Christ; to reduce Jesus to, at best, a wise sage or, at worst, a manufactured myth to further a political agenda.  We read ‘works’ by ‘experts’ who question Jesus’ historical reality despite the wealth of documentary and testimonial witness preserved through the ages , despite His impact on human history (and yet while there are no contemporary first-hand writings of Socrates, for example, there does not seem to be any doubt over his existence).

How did we get here?  Some point to advances in science and technology, as if these are the polar opposite of faith; actually the Church teaches that science and technology are among the many gifts which God has placed at our disposal to use wisely, nurturing our understanding and pursuit of Him utilizing both faith and reason.  Whether we use the science or technology for good or evil ends is the real issue.

Perhaps it is because as a culture, we have gotten lazy.  Perhaps we have reduced everything to ‘minimum effort for maximum apparent benefit’. The physical, material is immediate and requires no conviction.  Faith involves commitment; commitment is hard work.

Jesus presents a parable in this particular passage of an ‘unjust judge’ who is not interested in hearing a case brought forward by a certain widow. The judge refuses for a time, but eventually surrenders to hearing the widow’s case simply because she has ‘worn him down’ with her persistence.  It’s important to note that Jesus depicts this ‘unjust’ judge as having no respect for any human, and no ‘fear’ or ‘awe’ of God.  The two go hand-in-hand.

This is not Jesus’ way of suggesting that we can simply ‘wear down’ God with constant repeated requests for the same thing over and over.  The point He is making is, that if even an ‘unjust’ judge can be open to hearing the petition of a widow who persists in her requests, then how much more would God, the ‘Just Judge’ be open to hearing and answering His chosen ones – His children, who ‘cry to Him day and night’.

The question for us becomes, do we ‘cry to Him’ day and night?  Do we persist in our prayers and our actions in presenting ourselves to God as His chosen ones, as His children?  Do we live out that persistence in faith? 

Do we mumble a couple of prayers about God making the world a better place, and then go about our lives without making an effort in treating those around us with the love and compassion that Jesus teaches is the hallmark of His disciples?  Do we ask God to give us something to make our life easier without using our own God-given talents or gifts to alleviate the suffering of someone in our immediate circle?  Do we cry out ‘how long O Lord?’ about injustices in the world, and yet fail to address the injustices in our own homes, or communities; or even take a public stand against evil? 

Faith is indeed a gift from God; it is one of the three theological virtues.  But we have to be open to receiving faith and sharing the graces that pour forth from it.  To deny faith is to deny the gift that could only help to bring us closer to our brothers and sisters, and closer to God.  We receive faith when we surrender to it, rather than resist it.  It is the grace of faith that strengthens us to hold on in times of difficulty, to instinctively reach out for Jesus when we feel lost, to yearn for God’s embrace when we feel that we can go no farther or remain steadfast any longer.  It is in the community of the faithful, that we are offered that support; it is in the Church that we are invited to recognize our value as God’s children; and it is that gift of faith that we are challenged to hand on to our children as the most precious thing we could ever bequeath them.

Some may be tempted to despair, and respond to Jesus’ question, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” with, “not likely”

I prefer to respond, “You know Lord, where your faithful are. Gather us to yourself.”

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

This particular weekend in Canada we celebrate Thanksgiving. How appropriate,  that as we observe the holiday of Thanksgiving on our secular calendar, we are given a gospel message that speaks of gratitude.  A passage that speaks of giving thanks to God:  it is this word, ‘thanksgiving’ which is at the very heart of our Catholic faith:  the Greek word for thanksgiving is ‘eucharistia’ from which we get the word Eucharist:  the Eucharist, which as we are told in numerous church documents, is the source and summit of the Christian life.

In our gospel passage from St.Luke today, we are told that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem; that he is in the region between Samaria and Galilee – on the fringes of the Jewish areas, and the fringes of the Samaritan areas

And in this place he encounters ten lepers – leprosy being a disease which in its day, and up to our current times, created a tremendous fear among the general population: if someone was found to have this disease, they were set apart – they were unclean; no one could go near them for fear of catching it….they had to live in isolated areas, and for the Jewish lepers, they had to call out ‘unclean’ to warn people from coming near them

Anyone who came in contact with lepers was also considered unclean according to the law of Moses; to protect the rest of the population they had to spend a period apart from others, and they were also forbidden from entering the Temple until they had fulfilled certain purification rites.

Jesus was raised in the Jewish traditions, and we have numerous examples of how he too observed the laws and religious observances – the fact he was ‘going up to Jerusalem’ ; he was making a pilgrimage to the Temple, a typical practice for a devout Jewish male.  This tells us he took religious observance very seriously; but as he so often taught in other episodes from his life and teaching, the heart of the law was more important than the letter of the law; and the heart of the law is mercy and compassion:

Jesus places himself in a situation that will cause tension with his Jewish followers and the teachers and religious leaders;  socially, Jesus goes out on a real limb to meet with and heal these ten lepers; and not just that, he deals and associates with one who is a Samaritan – this is the equivalent of ‘two strikes’ in terms of Jesus being ‘allowed’ to offer sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem – he is risking his own opportunity to celebrate with his own religious community:  he will have to follow rites of purification to be ‘clean’ in order to observe his religious practices. But this doesn’t prevent him from what he does next.

Jesus shows compassion on these ten lepers, has contact with them and works a great miracle; but he doesn’t just wave his hand and they are healed:  he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests – something that was necessary so they could be proclaimed ‘clean’ and could participate in community worship: a religious observance to bring about a spirit of thanksgiving.

It is while they are on their way to the priests, as Jesus has told them, that they become clean.  And only one who notices they are now clean, turns back and thanks Jesus before reporting to the priests  – and this man is a Samaritan;

The other nine have continued on their way, we are left to assume to report to the priests; but the gospel doesn’t recount or tell us whether or not they were thankful or praised God for this great gift of healing that they had received. 

Only a Samaritan – one who was outside their tradition – understood who had healed them; and he returned to thank God in the person of Jesus for this tremendous gift that he had received.  Fulfilling the religious observance could come for this man only after he had expressed his thankfulness – his gratitude:  it would be in this spirit of thanksgiving that he could then praise and worship God with a heart filled with gratitude.

This attitude of gratitude is what we are all called to have, particularly when we gather to celebrate the Mass; at the heart of our gathering together is worship – before all else; we don’t approach God primarily to ask for something: first and foremost we gather to worship God and to give thanks for all of the ways he has blessed each and every one of us; ways that are too numerous to count; 

It seems at times we would prefer to hang on to reasons not to be grateful; to ignore the ways in which we have been blessed, and to concentrate on some way in which we feel we might have been ‘short-changed’ by God.

But in the earliest part of the Mass, when we sing to the praise of God, in the prayer we call the Gloria; we say it quite clearly “ we give you thanks for your great glory!”

We come first and foremost in thanksgiving, in eucharistia, to thank God simply for loving us into existence, and for giving us the gift of Jesus, the gift of Himself in our humanity, to give us the gift of adoption as his sons and daughters.

We need to understand that primarily we gather to worship God and to thank Him: we don’t come just to ‘get’ something;  we don’t come just to ‘get’ His Word – we don’t come just to ‘get’ Holy Communion – anything we receive during the Mass is a gift and a grace; but if we only gather to ‘get’ something, then we are really no different from the nine lepers who received the cleansing, the healing from Jesus, and went on their way without a second thought of returning to him to offer thanks.  They got what they wanted, and off they went.

We are called to be thankful as we gather as God’s people; we are called to be thankful as we received His Word; we are called to be thankful as we receive Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar; if we are not approaching the altar with an attitude of thanksgiving, then perhaps we have no business approaching the altar at all.  How fortunate we are, that we have a God who is so generous and understanding, always willing to forgive and continues to reach out to us to welcome into his healing and loving presence.

As a country we pause this particular weekend in our calendar year to offer thanks; some of us have family traditions where we might gather as an extended family for a great feast and offer some thoughts on particular things that we are thankful for.

But as Catholics, we have been given so much that we should be thankful each and every day, always seeking opportunities to be like the Samaritan leper, to turn back to Jesus and say ‘thank you’. 

Thank you for the gift of life – thank you for the gifts of community, of friends , of healing; but thank you most of all dearest and most generous Lord , for the precious gift of yourself, sacrificed, broken and given for all of us; you have made us a Eucharistic  people; a people of Thanksgiving.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

…working on the (Life) Chain gang….

In our community this past Sunday, as in many others across North America, groups of people took to the streets-literally- to form a  chain; standing with posters silently and peacefully witnessing to the cause of life.  I was encouraged and edified by the range of people I saw along the busy street in our city; older folks and wee ones, teenagers, working young adults, middle-aged parents, whole families…all standing in respectful silence, making public their belief in the sacredness of all life, from conception to its natural end.

As I joined them and prayed, one memorable incident occurred.  A young man, perhaps in his mid-to-late 20’s drove up, stopped his car in a traffic lane beside a group of the silent pro-lifers, and proceed to unleash a barrage of profanities, punctuating them with an obscene gesture.  His initial recipients were grandparents; and it was only moments before vehicles driving along this very busy street were stuck behind him, honking their horns to get him to move so they could be on their way (I have no idea what the position on life issues of those honking was – they simply wanted to drive and this individual was blocking traffic).

Eventually he started to move, but slowly, making sure that he directed his gestures and profanities towards each member of the chain, including small children.

I know he will never read this post.  I’m not even sure why I am writing it.

The first thing that went through my mind was, ‘how sad’. The second, ‘I’ll pray for you.”

The third though, was, ‘your parents must be very proud of you, particularly your language and gestures to the elderly and little children.’  I’m betting though, he could care less.

I’m not sure if he believed his actions would support his viewpoint.  I’m not sure if they thought they would be evidence that he was a bigger man, a smarter man, or a better man. If so, it would appear he is sadly mistaken.

His language and actions simply reinforced what is becoming an all too common stereotype of the pro-choice movement; and because they were directed at the elderly and little kids, it spoke volumes of an apparent contempt for all stages of life.

How sad. And yes, I did pray for him. And will continue to do so. Because his life is sacred too.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“You owe me!”

A common enough phrase to be sure.  We hear that in culture, in the media, likely even in our own day-to-day dealings with each other.  This sense that one is indebted to the other because one has completed some task or fulfilled a request or perhaps even satisfied some expectation.

Many of us grew up in the shadow of the veterans and those who lived during the Second World War.  Many of those veterans, returning from war, started looking for work; jobs were plentiful, and many of them worked multiple jobs, or worked extended hours.  They started their own families and worked harder; most of them engaged in long hours and hard labour so that, as they put it, “my children won’t have to.”  The ideal that their children would have a better life, better education, more opportunities than they had was something they strove for.  It was a laudable and noble motive.

But maybe, just maybe, the children should have had to work as hard.

The next gneration grew up, quickly acclimatizing to this sense of opportunity .  They didn’t have to work for it, it was given to them. With that, came a sense of entitlement, that these opportunities were not privileges but rights.  That bigger and better and brighter was theirs by birthright, and they quickly forgot that it was paid for by struggles, work and sacrifice of their forebears.  It developed into a widespread mentality that, not only were they entitled to all things grand and good, but they owed nothing to those that paved the way for them.  In fact, it would be better for the previous generation to ‘get out of the way’. This ingratitude was compounded with the mindset that anything they shared of their plenty, whether with subsequent generations or their own parents, was an act of such tremendous generosity , that they now ‘owned’ the recipients of their largesse.  Anything done for their offspring meant that their children now ‘owed’ them – likewise anything done for their aging parents was done grudgingly; “you had your time to run things – this is MY generation.”, and the parents should be grateful and appreciative for any small favour granted them.

I know this sounds pretty bleak, and perhaps a tad morose.  But I use this example in reflecting on the Gospel passages from St. Luke we have read the past several Sundays, including the one today concerning a conversation Jesus has with his disciples concerning grace. (Luke 17:5-10)

In recent weeks we heard the story of the ‘Prodigal son’ and how the two brothers were focussed on their entitlement to their father’s property rather than his love.  Last week we hear about the rich man, who while leaving Lazarus to starve at his gate, believed he was entitled to a happy eternity simply because of he was a son of Abraham. This week we hear how the disciples rather rudely demand of Jesus ,”Increase our faith!” as if somehow Jesus “owes” them something simply because they are his followers.

Punctuation is everything!  In that phrase “Increase our faith!” there is no sense of supplication, or humble request, or even a polite suggestion.  It’s a demand, an order and it actually sounds a bit like the antagonists of the previous parables ;  “Give me my share of the inheritance!” or “Send Lazarus to my father’s house!”

Faith, like the other theological virtues Hope and Love, are gifts.  They are not latent talents, achievable goals or ranks of conquest.  They are gifts lovingly poured out by God into the hearts of those who are open to receiving them in humility and gratitude.  We cannot demand them any more than we can ‘buy’ them.  We have no exclusive claim to them, and we certainly cannot control or dispense them on our own.

This is the point Jesus makes when he compares his disciples to servants or slaves.  They are there to work in the field and wait on the master.  They are fed and housed and clothed for what they have done.  They are not entitled to be treated better than their master, to be waited on by their master.  They have received what they have received from the master because he chooses to give it to them.  And in return they provide the service which is expected of them.  They are not doing anything ‘extraordinary’.  They are not ‘entitled’ to something more. If they receive anything more, it is simply because their master, in his generosity, grants it to them, not because he ‘owes’ them.

True gifts are freely given.  Genuine gifts are given unconditionally.  Authentic gifts are generously handed out by the giver.

As for the recipient; true gifts are received gratefully, are accepted without question, are deeply treasured and appreciated.

Jesus is making it clear through all of these parables that no one, even his disciples, can lay a claim on the generosity and graciousness of Almighty God.  The minimum expected of those who claim to ‘belong’ to Jesus, to be disciples of Christ, is to follow his teaching and to live that teaching out, in all things.  But we should never, ever delude ourselves into thinking that because we follow and live that teaching, that we ‘deserve’ the gifts of God’s grace, that somehow Jesus ‘owes’ us.  We should never presume in arrogance that we have ‘fulfilled’ some type of bargain and that Jesus has to ‘deliver’ an increase of graces and virtues as if somehow we have bought and paid for His services.

Faith, hope, love and all of the other virtues and gifts that God bestows on us are not ‘entitlements’; they are blessings freely and generously showered on us by God, not because he ‘owes’ us; but because He loves us.

If we truly spend time, prayerfully considering this, then we begin to understand who really owes who in this relationship of giving and receiving. We can begin to move towards an acknowledgement that God doesn’t owe us anything. 

We owe God everything. Especially our gratitude.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!