26th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year A)

When I was a young man, in my late teens or early 20’s, whenever I was facing some type of dilemma, my father would always expect me to ‘do the right thing’; whether it was job-hunting, school, following through on commitments at church or with family and friends, he would always tell me that he knew I would do the right thing….and he also would tell me that, upon reflection, I would just know what the ‘right thing to do’ was.

In the parable related in our passage from St. Matthews Gospel today, we hear of two sons; one who says he won’t do what his father asks, but later reconsiders and does it; and another son who says he’ll do the father’s bidding, but does not. The first son, it seems, was the one who ultimately ‘did the right thing.’

 

And the right thing, that Jesus is telling his listeners, is entering into the Kingdom of Heaven; that’s returning to union with God.  It starts in the here and now.  It’s what we were all created for; and it is something that we are all invited into.  But it seems, as Jesus relates this parable to upstanding members of his community, a particular group of Pharisees, that entry is being made by people that the ‘community’ has written off as unclean and unworthy of the kingdom.

 

The reason Jesus says that tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the Pharisees is not because the Pharisees followed the law and the traditions of their faith.  The reason that tax collectors and prostitutes would get into the kingdom ahead of this particular group of Pharisees, is because they were willing to be open to the movement of God within their hearts, and to change their ways and turn their hearts to God.  When Jesus spoke of tax collectors and the like, he didn’t condone their behaviour or their lifestyles.  He told them they had to change ;  to the woman caught in the act of adultery he said, ‘Go and sin no more’.  To his disciples he said if you are preparing to offer sacrifice and remember you are at odds with your brother or sister, go and make peace first, then offer your sacrifice.  To Zaccheus , a tax collector, he said salvation had come to his house because he was changing his ways, letting love for God occupy his heart instead of material gain.  Repent.  Forgive.  Love.

 

There was nothing inherently wrong with the law and the traditions that the Pharisees studied and upheld. The law, after all, was handed down to them through Moses, as a means of living in right relationship with God.  But for some of them, the law was no longer a means of coming closer to God, but an end in itself.  That was the problem.

It was observing the law for the sake of observing the law; some of them had apparently forgotten the heart of the law – and the heart of the law is compassion and mercy. But in observing the law for its sake alone, they had replaced God with another idol; the law had become an idol to them, and as such, it had taken on a life of its own, and rather than becoming a means of growing closer to God, it had become an obstacle.

 

The tax collectors and prostitutes and ‘public sinners’ on the other hand, had hit rock bottom, in terms of their relationship with God. The world was all important; God was not – how much like our own age does this sound?  And Jesus continually called them to set aside their worldliness, their desires for worldly pleasures to the exclusion of God; their self-absorbed and self-destructive lifestyles; and turn back to God, recognizing that they had turned from Him.    Many were willing to do just that; Jesus had not written them off as much of their own society had, but he did call them to repent and turn to God with broken and open hearts.

 

This group of Pharisees , on the other hand, blinded by their own pride, couldn’t see that everyone – Everyone – is on a constant journey in life, a journey where we are all invited to continually set aside the things that prevent us from being completely open to the work of God in and through our own lives. They were so caught up in their own self-righteousness that they couldn’t bear to consider that Jesus was inviting them to use their religious tradition and laws as a means of deepening their life in God.

 

That observance of law and tradition is something that we –Catholics- are often criticized for. The point in all of this is that we follow what the Church teaches, and participate in all manner of devotional and liturgical practices set out by the Church, not because we have to, but because we want to.  We desire to deepen our relationship with God; and God, in the person of Jesus, has Himself given us the Sacraments and the Church, as the means through which we can open ourselves to receiving God into the very depths of our being.  That’s what is so important about following the Church’s teaching. Not because we get a ‘gold star’ or try to out-do each other in keeping rules and having our own scorecards, or even ‘score points’ with God.  It’s important because it provides us with the opportunities to open ourselves further to God’s saving action in our own lives, and enables us to reach out and share this action with others.

 

But it comes down to understanding that Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Church’s teaching are a means through which God draws us to himself; but only if we remain open to that and place love of God above all else.

And whether we have come to that understanding, or are struggling with it, or are just becoming open to considering it; we are asked to be more like the first son in today’s parable; even if we haven’t immediately responded to God’s invitation to a deeper love, there is always time to reconsider and ‘do the right thing’. And the ‘right thing’, is to move back into union with our Creator, where we were meant to be, right from the beginning.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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25th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year A)

People sometimes get so caught up in ‘getting a good deal’ that frequently, we see ourselves doing one of two things…feeling resentful of someone who got a ‘better deal’ than we did when we have made a recent purchase; or buying something because it is at a ‘really good price’ without considering whether or not we truly need it in the first place.

That consumerist mentality can become so overwhelming and all-consuming, that it can blind us to our own realities; ‘can I really afford this?’; ‘us this necessary for my life or happiness?’; ‘is this going to negatively impact my ability to meet any of my other obligations?’. Yet we continue to be inundated with voices that tell us to buy more, get more, have more.

The griping over a perceived injustice is what Jesus brings out for consideration in today’s Gospel passage. While those who have spent a lifetime being faithful to God’s promises have believed in the promise they have been given, somehow they feel ‘short-changed’ if someone comes to God perhaps later in life, or after a period of being ‘unfaithful’ – even if God has promised this person a share in His kingdom and this ‘late-comer’ has been faithful to that relationship with God from that point on.

This parable that Jesus uses, of those labouring all day for a set wage complaining about those coming later in the day receiving the same wage is part of that ‘consumption’ mentality; the fact that Jesus told this parable in the first century seems to indicate this mentality is not a new phenomenon; it seems rather that it is part of human nature and part of our pattern of human thought; God’s promises may be for everyone, but (we think somehow) His promise to me is more important or more valuable than whatever He has promised to anyone else;  my relationship with God is worth more than another’s relationship to God and so God ‘just better remember that’.

In the his classic literary work, The Divine Comedy, Dante Allegheri writes an account of his soul’s journey through hell, purgatory and finally heaven;  I’m paraphrasing here of course, and I will warn you , if you haven’t read the books, then this is a ‘spoiler alert’!

When Dante enters heaven, he notices that it is made up of different ‘spheres’ occupied by the souls of those who have ‘made it’. He notices though, that some ‘spheres’ are closer to the centre where God is, and some are farther away.  He wonders out loud to those who are in the farthest spheres, ‘don’t you want to move closer to the centre? Wouldn’t you rather be on one of those other spheres?’

The reply he receives from those victorious souls in heaven says it all – they’re in heaven with God! It doesn’t matter how close or how far in space they are or their ‘position’ in the spheres.  They are with God and that’s all that matters – and they remind Dante that his thinking is the way humans on earth think; that on earth it’s all about ranking, position, privilege, or even that ‘really good deal’; they tell Dante the thought of those in heaven or (we can say here) in right relationship with God is only one of gratitude for being in union with God, whatever form or ‘position’ that may take.

What Jesus invites us to do in this gospel passage is to enter into a sense of profound gratitude to God; gratitude that we have responded to His invitation to union with Him; gratitude that He even invited us in the first place; and gratitude for his same invitation to and response from our brothers and sisters, who are continuing their own pilgrim journeys as we are, whatever stage they are at or how early or late they have come to that stage.

Perhaps with that attitude, we might all look out for that ‘very best deal’ of all, union with God, and rejoice when anyone enters into it, regardless of their timing!

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Exultation of the Holy Cross – Sept. 14th (Year A)

This Sunday, September 14th marks the feast of the Triumph of the Cross; this celebration was actually put in place to mark several historic events in the history of the Church. Many will be familiar with the story of how the Roman Emperor Constantine, early in the fourth century, had a vision on the eve of a battle, of a cross in the sky with the words, “by this sign you will conquer.” Constantine was victorious and eventually made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, ending the persecutions which had been so numerous up to that time. Some years later, the remains of the true cross were recovered during excavations in Jerusalem by Constantine’s mother, and churches were dedicated in honour of this. As time went on, this relic was considered the greatest and most valuable in the entire Christian world. Several centuries later, this relic was seized by the Persians during the many wars that plagued the middle-east, and carried off. However, the relic of the True Cross was recovered from the Persians in the seventh century by the Roman Emperor Heraclius. From that time on, commemoration of the Finding of the Cross and the Exaltation or Triumph of the Cross has been observed on the 14th of September.

But what is the real Triumph of the Cross? Is it simply a matter of a historical relic? Is it only about political and military victories that allowed the easing of laws against the spread of Christianity?

From the time our first parents, Adam and Eve, separated themselves –and as a result US- from God, God set things in motion to enable us to eventually be reunited with him. Throughout the history of the world, beginning with the ‘choosing’ of Abraham, and then through the children of Israel, God spoke to humanity, inviting them to draw closer. But as salvation history would show, the people themselves could not cure this separation from God on their own – God had to directly intervene to save humanity from an eternity of sin and death; through his prophets, God gave hints throughout the history of Israel how this would be accomplished.

Our first reading today from the book of Numbers recounts an event during the Exodus, when the children of Israel had been freed from slavery in Egypt and were wandering in the desert with Moses on their way to the Promised Land.

The people were being bitten by poisonous serpents and were appealing to God through Moses to do something to save them; God told Moses to fashion a serpent of bronze and set it on a pole or staff, and whoever gazed on it would be saved…now before we start thinking of this serpent as a ‘magic charm’, we need to understand that Jewish tradition teaches that it was much more than this: The trust was not in the bronze figure; it meant that when Moses erected it, the Israelites looked at the bronze figure and put their trust in THE ONE who ordered Moses to do so; then God would send them healing.”

This event, though was in itself a prophesy of how God would deliver all people from slavery to sin; from the serpent bite of death. It is not difficult to see how this is a reference to the crucifixion of Jesus; but rather than Jesus simply being ‘mounted’ or ‘placed’ on the cross, he willingly embraces it, offering himself, the God-man, to atone for the original sin of humanity in separating ourselves from God. It is a complete and total gift of self-giving, not only by Jesus, but from God as well.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

That is the expression of God’s true gift of love; think about someone you love very much, and what you would be willing to give to or give for that person –

Now, as parents; think how much we love our children –

Now think about that passage again – that God so loved the world He gave His only Son; not only in the incarnation as a baby in a manger; but He gave His only Son to atone for the broken nature of every person in the entire world…that’s the Father’s expression of love;

And the Son? His expression of love was to give His own life on the Cross as a gift of love to all people to reunite them to the Father; he didn’t simply die for His apostles, for His friends…He died as a gift, a sacrifice for all people – the crowds who followed Him, the Pharisees who condemned him , the Romans who crucified him…everyone; an unreserved, unconditional total gift of self sacrifice in love for all;

We sometimes tend to think of the sacrifice of the Cross as the Sacrifice of Jesus alone; but consider as a parent the sacrifice of the Father in giving His only Son for that reason, so that all of us could at last become adopted daughters and sons of God, reunited at last with God as we were meant to be.

That is the real Triumph of the Cross – that God would take what historically was an instrument of humiliation and torture and turn it into a sign of love and self-giving. And beyond that, we too are even given the gift of participating in this victory, this triumph; we are invited to share in this continual outpouring and sharing of love, caring for others and inviting them into that relationship.

One concrete, visible expression of our faith in Christ who was lifted up or exalted or glorified on the Cross, is how we live out our life, in imitation of Him in our daily lives;

Think again of the gifts we have – do we sacrifice or give away something of ourselves to others; to our families, our communities, to our brothers and sisters in need?

We have inspiring examples of those who have made a gift of their lives to others, sharing in the Triumph of the Cross, living out the Gospel message;

Look, for example at St. Francis of Assisi who gave away everything to live in service to the poor and reviving the Church ….think of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and her work among the poorest of the poor…..or Jean Vanier who founded and continues his work in the L’Arche communities working with developmentally challenged adults, trying to restore their independence and dignity…

There are those in our own parish who are an example of this kind of self-giving love, showing the victory of the Cross in their own lives; those who visit the sick; those who bring the sacrament of Holy Communion to shut ins….those who work to aid those in financial and social difficulty…. Those who give their time to others experiencing spiritual poverty, helping people to come to a closer relationship to God and to better understand the Gospel…those who help feed the hungry, or clothe the poor…

We can all express this love for others, this sacrifice, this gift; perhaps not on the scale of a Teresa or Francis, but according to our own abilities and means; In our own community, the Food Bank is struggling to meet demand, and is appealing for help as the summer ends and as food and fuel prices increase, affecting more and more people who suffer in our own towns – if we cannot volunteer our time, we can do as much as we can to contribute to the needs of the Food Bank through food or other donations.

Giving what we can out of love for God and love for our brothers and sisters in need.

In the Triumph of the Cross, God gave us in love, the best that He had to give. In imitation of Christ, in sharing in the Triumph which He gives to us, what are we prepared to give to Him?

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

In our present society and culture, it seems that opinions are asked for only inasmuch as they are in agreement with the one asking the question.  If the response is not what the questioner wants, or fits with what they’ve already planned or decided in advance, then the response is simply discounted, ignored, or even ridiculed.  But in this setting, there is something even worse than an unfavourable response; it is unsolicited advice – direction or an observation that isn’t invited or requested – that points out errors, especially in behaviour or lifestyles.  And this is something that the Roman Catholic Church is often publicly ridiculed and criticized for.  But this is exactly what is expected of disciples of Christ. 

In today’s passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus himself gives this command, this direction to his followers.  Speaking to Jewish listeners, Jesus’ words are pretty clear; if you point out sin to a member of your own community, discreetly, and they won’t listen, but persist in that sin and you invite in additional members of the community and ultimately the Church, and they still persist, then they have put themselves outside that community of believers.  Believers have not judged them – the Church has not ordered them out – but they have put themselves in a position where, like tax collectors and Gentiles, they are outside the dedicated community of believers.  They have chosen, despite all evidence given to them by their faith community, to not live as a member of that community. 

How often it is though, that people blame ‘the Church’ for putting them outside, as if the Church somehow manages to control how people make their own choices and actions and decisions.  As humans in the 21st century of the developed west, we have refined the lack of responsibility for our own actions almost to an art form.  We don’t want anyone interfering with our choices – but quite often when our choices bring negative consequences, we don’t want to take any responsibility for those choices.  It’s not our fault – it’s ‘someone’ or’ everyone’ else’s.

It is crucial to understand in reading this passage though, that this is not a matter of the Church deciding how someone ends up outside the community.  It is the individual who, through their choices, actions and persistence in both, puts themselves outside that relationship with the community, that harmony…it is the individual who moves themselves away from God, isolating themselves from the rest of the community of believers just as Jewish tax collectors would have in first century Palestine.  And that is exactly why Jesus spent so much time with tax collectors – it wasn’t to condone what they were doing; it was to bring them back from their self-destructive lifestyles.  Remember His words, ‘ it is not the well who need the doctor, but the sick.’ It was by pointing out sin that he invited them back.

It might be helpful here to have some kind of a definition of sin as a reference point in our own examination of conscience.  St. Augustine defined personal sin as a deliberate, intentional, continual orienting of the self away from God – in other words, turning all of our desire in on ourselves.  In a spirituality like this, there is no room for God; there is no room for compassion or love or charity.  There is only a need to satisfy the self with more and more ‘things’ that ultimately can never satisfy the deepest longing within our souls.  That deepest longing can only be satisfied in union with God – but when a soul turns in on itself, it stops seeking God and ends in a continual state of self-absorption and frustration.  When a brother or sister points this out to another, it is not in some type of ‘holier than thou’ manoeuvre of superiority – a sort of spiritual ‘I’m better than you’ game.  It is actually the most merciful, deepest form of kindness and love that we can perform for one another.  It underscores the point that we are indeed in this together – that the Church is one body; not just a collection of individuals – and that sometimes we need to help ‘keep each other honest.’

If we fail to do this for each other, then we have failed in keeping the two commands to love God and to love our neighbour; what greater compassionate act can there be than striving to help others remain close to God?  

The Old Testament language of the prophet Ezekiel (our first reading) may be worded more strongly, but this commission from God says the same thing; ‘I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you will give them warning from me.’  Ezekiel uses the word ‘the wicked’ to describe ‘sinners’, but ultimately it comes to the same thing.  Anyone who listens to the Word of God, and keeps it in their heart, and lives in faithful union with God is responsible or helping others to remain in friendship with God; that’s what the Church is all about – that’s what remaining in community with the Church is all about.  If means that pointing out truth is part of the price of being a disciple of Christ, a member of the Church.  But as members of the Body of Christ, as people who desire to remain in union with God, we need to remember that having error pointed out is a two-way street.  Just as we should be willing to share our observation of sin in a brother’s or sister’s life, we should be willing to receive those same observations about ourselves.

Because even with the possibility of negative consequences for our actions, there remains the knowledge that forgiveness and reconciliation are always at hand.  Even if we place ourselves outside the community, or when each of us makes choices that move us away from God and the Church, we can always come back.  God didn’t send His prophets into the world to say it was without hope.  Jesus didn’t enter our humanity to tell us we were ‘doomed’.  Jesus didn’t send His disciples into the world to spread the message that we can never return to God; all of salvation history is a message of love, of constant invitation to turn from ourselves and turn towards God.  That’s what reconciliation is – that’s what we are all offered.

This is a relationship that we should feel compelled to share.  As Christians is this invitation that we are commanded to offer to others.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!