Sunday, September 22, 2019

Living With Passion

September 22, 2019 –– 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Amos 8:4–7 / Psalm 113 / 1 Timothy 2:1–8 / Luke 16:1–13
Living With Passion

In this Gospel story Jesus is not recommending conniving selfishness (the prophet Amos warns about that!). Jesus is making the point that we are in the same position as this steward who saw his imminent dismissal threatening him with ruin––but the crisis which threatens us is even more serious. The steward was losing his temporal security; all of us are going to die, and how we respond to this temporal world will affect us eternally. The word mammon in the Gospel reading is not merely money, but the sum total of temporal values.

As Christians, we believe there are two worlds: the unseen world as well as the one that is visible––the world which is eternal as well as the one that is passing away. Some people live as though this world is all there is and ever will be. That means all their values, all their energies and all their hopes are focused on the here and now. Living that way is the essence of unbelief. To live that way is to leave God and his kingdom out of the picture. It is an attitude which thinks that being “happy” right now is the most important thing––and temporal security is a top priority for having happiness.

Jesus says the man in this story acted "prudently" (v8). The word is sometimes translated “wisely” or “shrewdly” (emphasizing the devious side of being “wise”). The steward had foresight and recognized the critical nature of his situation. Jesus is not commending his character or what he did; rather, Jesus respects the intensity of the man’s perception and motivation to act “prudently” for his welfare, so he says: For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

In essence, Jesus is saying that people who live for the here and now know how to go after what they want. Worldly people know how to be worldly. They are shrewd. They know how to get their way. They know how to take care of what is often called “Number One.” A shrewd businessman knows how to manipulate situations to his own advantage. A playboy knows how to seduce. A “shark” knows how to cheat people. That kind of character goes after their goal with abandon. People consumed with this world know what they want and they know what they have to do to get it. That is how they can be a model to us for how to live with passion for the kingdom of God. The dedication it takes to achieve advancement and pleasure in the here-and-now is the kind of dedication Jesus calls his disciples to have for following him.

We live in a world where most people get things backwards. Beginning with the first disobedience in the Garden, people have always tried to rationalize away God's laws. The Pharisees did it (see v14). Many “religious” people do it today. God calls his people to look at life in an upside-down kind of way.

One way to think about our priorities and motivations is through the values we hold for our children. So much of the focus is on worldly success. Little Johnny might know little or nothing about God, Scripture, or Sacraments, but let him bring home a bad report card, and the reaction is quick. Here is a big problem because if Johnny doesn’t get better grades, he might not get into the best college, and then he won’t be able to make a killing––I mean.... a living.

Too often in today’s culture kids are taught that sports is the most important thing. Weekly church attendance is not so easy, but daily practice is certainly accommodated. We can think that an hour sitting in church is next to eternity (and don’t dare go over), but hours of a Saturday or Sunday (or both) watching games and going to sports meets is no big deal. Meanwhile Johnny and Susie, who can kick a soccer ball or shoot baskets for hours, barely know Scripture and have no clue at Mass. But Mom and Dad haven’t made those things important, so maybe they’re not important at all.

But it’s not just families with kids and young adults…. “Mature adults” can spend hours worrying and strategizing to make sure their retirement income enables them to “live life at the standard you have come to expect” (that line was in a commercial). Retirees can passionately give themselves to the pleasures “we worked for so long and hard to enjoy,” and that’s supposedly the crowning glory of life.

It is so easy for all of us––parents and church leaders––not to be responsible in what matters most to God. Our children hear that they should study hard, get good grades etc., to make it in this world. In its place this is not wrong––but their souls are more important. If we allow our heroes and models to be sports superstars and entertainers who make it big in this world, then what is our true focus? Where are our hearts?

We all have a God-given capacity to go after what we want.... with abandonment. People around us do it all the time. “Go-getters" usually have the admiration of a lot of people. One exception to that is people who are super-motivated about Jesus––they are usually looked upon as "fanatics."

Jesus is calling us to be disciples who are willing to live for his kingdom with the same intensity with which worldly people pursue their own self interests. The unbelieving world will not easily hear the Church if we as Christians are not modeling distinctiveness in our values and commitments. May our Lord have mercy on us all. May he give us, who claim the name of Jesus, the desire and the strength to serve him with passion.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Laws of God

September 15, 2019 –– 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus 32:7–11,13–14 / Psalm 51 / First Timothy 1:12–17 / Luke 15:1–32
The Laws of God

It is good and helpful when we can understand the authority of law to be a security and even a comfort in our lives. One curse of self-autonomy is to react to laws as an infringement on our personal freedoms. Whenever we want to do “my own thing” or to be first or to be the exception, we might think of the chaos and anarchy that results if every person relates that way to others.

This is true in the natural world. Think of the basic law of gravity. Gravity is what keeps our feet anchored to the ground so we can walk. Sometimes we get frustrated with gravity (even if we don’t think of it in those terms): if we drop something valuable or precious to us and it breaks, we can think “why did that have to fall?” Or when we weigh ourselves we might wish the gravitational pull was not so intense on the scales.

This carries into the spiritual world. Just as there is a law of gravity in the natural world, there is a Law of Divine Retribution in the spiritual world. Disobedience to God brings hard repercussions. Sin gets judged. In the first reading Israel turned away from God and was in immediate danger of divine retribution. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the wayward young man remembers life at his fathers’s house (the household where he formerly felt so confined and restricted) and becomes aware of what he has done––I have sinned against heaven and against you; and he knows the appropriate repercussion––I no longer deserve to be called your son.

If we see only the restrictive and threatening side of law, the result is usually misery. As the parable opens the prodigal son felt the restrictions of home and bolted. At the end of the story his brother, the older son, thought he had done right. When the prodigal returned the other son complained to the father: all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends… The younger son selfishly ran away and the older son miserably remained to “earn” (this is implicit) the favor of the father.

It would have been “best” for both sons to stay at the Father’s house out of love––most of all, out of love for the father, but also allowing that love to open their eyes to the true goodness of the father’s house (instead of evidently seeing mostly confinement). Neither of the sons had truly understood the father’s heart.

All three readings today have one focus: God wants us to be “grabbed” by the true nature of his heart. In spite of the atrocity Israel committed against the Holy One who had so recently delivered them (even so miraculously) from slavery in Egypt, the LORD relented in the punishment he had threatened…. Writing to Timothy, Paul remembers his sins––a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but then gives this wonderful witness: I have been mercifully treated… The prodigal son goes home and tells his father: I have sinned…. I no longer deserve to be called your son. But even before he could get those words out, while he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.

Just like in the natural world, there are spiritual laws. There is a Law of Divine Retribution, but it is only a default for those who will not accept another, and deeper, Divine Law of Mercy. It is rooted in the nature of the God whose name is Love. In the natural world there is a law of gravity, but it can be superseded by the law of aerodynamics. Gravity tells us that something as heavy as an airplane cannot stay “up” but the law of aerodynamics shows that gravity does not have total force. And while airplanes eventually have to come down, in the spiritual world the Law of Divine Retribution can be perpetually superseded by the Law of Mercy. St Paul affirms to Timothy––This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Something broken in us inclines us to focus on the negative. Like the older brother we easily see it in others (and, like the older brother, we often want to justify ourselves because we think we’ve behaved “better” than someone else). Sometimes we focus on the negative in ourselves; Satan wants us to do that if it can drive us to despair. What God wants us to see is his love and mercy––his father’s heart.

I am a father and a grandfather. I cannot describe the love I have for my family. I would die for the good of my children, but that is only an inadequate expression of the love of God. Again, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. There is no greater love.

St Ambrose, the early Father of the Church who helped form St Augustine, says this of God the Father:

Truly, he will come out running to meet you, his arms will be all embracing––for the LORD lifts those who are bowed down (Ps 147:6)––and he will give you a kiss, a sign of affection and of love; he will order his servants to dress you, to put a ring on you and give you sandals. You still are fearful for the affront you have caused, but he returns to you the dignity which you had lost. You fear punishment, and he kisses you. Finally, you fear being scolded, but he entertains you with a banquet.

Hear the Gospel. Let the “spiritual law of aerodynamics” lift you into the loving arms of our Heavenly Father and then soar in the mercies of grace given to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. As we come to the banquet of the Eucharist we are “fueled” with grace so we can fly, and they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isa 40:31). This is the Law of Mercy from our Father.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Humility As Vulnerability

September 1, 2019 –– 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 3:17–18,20, 28–29 / Psalm 68 / Hebrews 12:18–19, 22–24a / Luke 14:1, 7–14
Humility As Vulnerability

The readings today call our attention to humility. It is easy also to think of the implicit opposites of pride and self-centeredness. Right away we should understand the difference between humility and humiliation. Humiliation is a twisted rejection––of ourselves or from others––of the value that God himself has placed on us. We are not being proud when we recognize the good that is there because of what God has done. It is humility when we live with the attitude that our good things come from God and that ultimately everything belongs to him. Pride tells us to use every situation to our own advantage––to do all we can to make ourselves look good.

Last week's Gospel told us that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. He is on the journey that will take him to his death. In today's reading Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, but he is also at a stop. He is in the home of a Pharisee for a meal, and he uses the opportunity to model and teach us how to live. Jesus did not separate his life and death. He came to die; he shows us, on the way to his death, how to live.

This story took place while Jesus was eating. God's ways are best understood when they are incorporated into everyday life. Scripture tells us that meals are great opportunities for teaching God's ways. What do we talk about at meal time? Here we have “table talks from Jesus.”

Jesus was at a feast. At those meals there was a ranking order. The most important people would sit closest to the host or guest of honor. Jesus uses this occasion to portray what true humility looks like in such a setting (and he is actually helping avoid humiliation). In telling the guests to take the less important seats, Jesus was teaching through a specific example what Paul would later conceptualize when he wrote to the Romans (12:3), Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought. One word that gives a bit of insight to this is being willing to be vulnerable.

Even as Jesus teaches humility here, he models the ultimate example that Paul so wonderfully gave the Philippians (2:6–8): Jesus… who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing…. he humbled himself and became obedient to death––even death on a cross!

As Jesus concludes his table talk, he also gives a word to the host himself. Jesus says a host should invite people who cannot return the invitation. Humility affects the way we give. One way to understand humility is to see it as an opposite of taking. Humility looks for a way to give; pride looks for a way to get. This coincides with what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. There he asked, If you love only those who love you, what good is that? (5:46). True giving is when there is little or no potential for getting something back. Embracing Christian giving makes us vulnerable. Here’s a question to consider: Would our financial giving to the church be the same if the IRS did not give a deduction?

It’s easy to play the game "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." The opposite of living that way is learning to be honest before God and to hold nothing back (God knows everything about us anyway; he knows if our obedience is from the heart or mostly to impress others). One way to understand Christian Faith is embracing personal vulnerability. We are getting close to God when we realize we are needy! We need God’s love and care and salvation.

The readings today remind us that when our focus is on ourselves we will try to use every situation to our own advantage. A focus on self will be mostly concerned with personal comfort and security. In contrast, following Jesus reverses the way we usually think and live in everyday life. We are invited to enter into the incredible grace of being loved by God so that we ourselves become channels of his love and grace and mercy. That is what Jesus taught and modeled.

May our Lord give us the grace of humility––and a growing grace to follow him with whole hearts, day in and day out, in all our situations. Perhaps, at a family meal, you can talk about what it means to live with a vulnerable trust in God!

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