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!

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19th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year A)

I don’t think there is anyone  who will not acknowledge that in recent years the Church has been facing crises; battered by storms from a selfish and materialistic outside world – battered from within by dissension and scandalous and sinful behaviour by some of her own members; but it is not the first time in the history of the Church that this has been the case.  There are dozens of examples throughout the history of the Church when it has been in crisis and peril from outside OR battered by individuals from within. And today’s Gospel passage gives us a glimpse into one of those earliest moments;

This passage occurs after Jesus has learned of the execution of his cousin, St. John the Baptist; it occurs after Jesus has fed the five thousand; Jesus has gone off to be alone in prayer and communion with His Father.  After praying all evening, He is returning to the disciples who are now in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in a boat; in the midst of a storm; and so He comes directly to them, walking across the water.

The ferocity of this storm is evident in this reading, as we know some of the disciples, particularly Peter were well-experienced sailors and fishermen; and they were afraid; now, in the middle of a raging storm, they see someone walking across the water towards them and they start to panic, and begin to shout in fear ‘it’s a ghost’!

But Jesus continues to come to them, speaking words of comfort in the midst of the wind; he tells them ‘be not afraid’…’it is I”.

There is a difference between conventional wisdom and wisdom of the Holy Spirit; and as in so many other passages we see a mixture of both of these with St. Peter.  First, he exercises prudence, a virtue and shows spiritual wisdom, rather than simply jumping into the sea;  He calls out to Jesus, testing the spirit as it were, and says,” Lord if it really is you, command me to come to you” – Peter knows he cannot simply get out on his own and walk across the water to Jesus, but he has discerned well enough that if it is really Jesus calling Him, then the power of Jesus will be enough to uphold him on the waves;

Having shown spiritual wisdom, Peter , the experienced fisherman, then throws worldly wisdom completely aside and gets out of a secure boat into a raging storm; and he actually begins to walk on water;

This is where Peter gets himself into trouble though; he feels the wind and the waves and realizes what’s happening; he starts to lose focus on who it was who called him out of the boat and onto the water, and starts focusing on the waves and wind and his own efforts; and as soon as he does that, he begins to sink.

Once again, Peter shows spiritual wisdom; rather than turning for the boat or shouting to the other disciples to throw him a rope, he calls out to Jesus “Lord Save me!” and the gospel says ‘Immediately”  – Immediately Jesus reached out and caught him and saved him;  Jesus brings him back to the boat, they get in, and the storm ceases. And at that point, all the other occupants of the boat, it says ‘worshipped him’.

The occupants of that boat on the Sea of Galilee at that point in history are the Church. And this little Church is in crisis – is being battered from the outside and the inside; battered from the outside by the storm surrounding the little boat; soon to be battered from the inside when we look at who makes up the Church in this little boat; Judas the traitor, Thomas the doubter, Simon the Zealot – but there is also John, the beloved Disciple; James, who will lead the infant Church in Jerusalem and be the first of the apostles to die for Christ ; and of course, Peter.  They have all met Jesus, walked with Jesus, lived with Jesus; they have witnessed many of his miracles, have heard his teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven; and yet, when the entire Church is beaten about by a storm, the only one who is willing to step out of the boat in trust, because Jesus is calling him, is Peter; and so Jesus saves Him;

But it may seem curious, why did Jesus bring Peter back to the boat?  Why not bring him to shore where it was safe, since Peter was the only one who had the courage to ‘get out of the boat’ in the middle of the storm in the first place?

Because now, Peter is back amongst the other members of the Church, and has a unique and intimate story of the saving power of Christ to share with them; Christ will continue to teach them, through Peter’s experience, through Peter’s WITNESS; it’s not hard to imagine that as time goes on, after this adventure, the other disciples would approach Peter  with their own questions; Peter has been strengthened by Jesus Himself, and will share this experience and this lesson in faith with them, and from it, they will have the opportunity to grow and develop in their own faith and prayer life.

But all of this would be impossible, without the movement of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, in Peter’s life, and Peter’s willingness to be open to the power and the gifts of faith and hope and trust supplied by God through the Spirit.

God calls each of us to be with Him, to be holy; that is the general vocation of each and every human being on the face of the earth.  Some respond, some do not. But even within this call to holiness, God calls each of us to a more intimate and specific relationship – to a particular role in helping others to grow in grace and faith and in the love of God; to witness to His love for all people; to testify to the strength He gives to each of us to follow Him.

We may not be called to witness with our own blood for our faith; but there is no one , man, woman or child, who has not been faced with making a decision, big or small, which calls on us to decide between the wisdom of this world, or the love of God; in the middle of our own crises and storms; employment problems; financial difficulties; turmoil in our relationships; sickness; loss, personal tragedy; but also in the midst of our joys and celebrations; that’s when we need to look outside the boat and walk towards Jesus; He’s there calling us to step out of the boat, out of our own crises to bring them to Him; we can trust that He will always be there, reaching out immediately to hold us up if we begin to sink; strengthening us, and returning with us into our own little boats; helping us witness and minister to others, in our journey back to the Father, listening to His word’s of comfort in the midst of those storms,

‘be not afraid’.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

 

 

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!