Saturday, July 22, 2017

Kingdom of God

                                    16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    

The Mustard Bush


We should consider passages like today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom as a kind of reflection on what the ancient author had observed about the human condition. Wisdom teaches that despite all of the failings of humankind, God is not a God of condemnation. In this passage the author insists that God does not condemn us but that we condemn ourselves.  

God is the source of justice, and his power makes him not a vengeful dictator but “lenient to all.” We cannot imagine that God can be pleased when we condemn ourselves to a life of misery and suffering. We read,

            But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency
            And with much lenience you govern us…     

These words introduce us to the Kingdom of God, the subject of the three parables or stories in today’s gospel. The thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew is full of parables about the Kingdom of God. Last week the beginning of the chapter gave us the famous parable of the Sower and the Seed. Today’s three short parables immediately follow and expand on the theme of spiritual growth while giving us an idea of what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God.

The first one is about a farmer who sows good seed only to find that some enemy has planted bad seed in the same field. Subsequently, weeds grow up along with the wheat. When the farmer’s servants ask him what to do, he says to let them grow together until the harvest when they will be separated.

Two thousand years later it is not hard to mistake the meaning of this parable, or to see its relevance in our own time when everything imaginable is growing up together. Daily the news brings us stories of bombings, massacres, violence and depravity along with stories of great heroism, decency and charity. However, for most of us in our own lives, it is often hard to tell the wheat from the weeds.

In the explanation at the end of the passage we do hear that only at the end will there be a separation.

The Son of Man will send his angels,
And they will collect out of his kingdom
All who cause others to sin and all evildoers.

We notice that ejection from the kingdom is not the will of God, nor does it depend on anyone’s race, nationality, gender, social or economic status, or even religious beliefs. It depends on how we have conducted our lives. The other two parables also bear this message. The mustard seed is the smallest of seeds but it grows to become the largest of plants. The least of us can accomplish great things in our own little way. The parable of the yeast that leavens the dough to make it rise and ultimately become edible is also an example of the way we all can bear much fruit.

St. Therese, a Carmelite nun who died in her early twenties, advocated the “little way”. Her words and life resonated through the whole Church and today she is regarded as one of a handful of Doctors of the Church. My own Italian immigrant grandparents were born just a few years after St. Therese and, while they will never be canonized, in their own little way I believe that they also bore much fruit. Like millions of other poor and hardly educated immigrants they left their homeland to build a better life for themselves and their families.

St. Paul says in today’s second reading that all of us are filled with the Spirit of God, and it is that Spirit that can make us accomplish great things.

The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness,
For we do not know how to pray as we ought…

So, even if we are not skilled in prayer or filled with theological knowledge, the Spirit of God will guide us in everything we do. Sometimes we feel that if we only had a little more time in our busy lives to meditate and pray, we might become closer to God’s Kingdom. However, I like to think that in these parables Jesus is teaching us that the little things we do in our ordinary lives are the things that really bring us into the Kingdom of God. All have been called to be good and faithful stewards and we have our work cut out for us.


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Reading 1. Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
Reading II. Romans 8:26-27
Gospel. Matthew 13: 24-43 (Kingdom of Heaven)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Sower and the Seed

                                    15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                 


           
Today’s first reading is clearly an introduction to the famous parable recounted in today’s gospel account of the sower and the seed. Isaiah compares the word of God to the rain and snow that make everything blossom and grow. Without this moisture which comes down from above there would be no life on earth. Obviously Isaiah is talking about much more than rain and snow. For him the word of God is more real and more important than the rain and snow.

            My word shall not return to me void,
            But shall do my will,
            Achieving the end for which I sent it.

In today’s parable Jesus shares Isaiah’s view. He even quotes from Isaiah. The parable of the sower and the seed is one of the most famous but it is also the only one which Jesus bothers to explain to his puzzled disciples. In Matthew’s account the seed, that is, the word of God, falls in different places with different results. Some falls on the hardened, trodden down path and is quickly eaten by the birds. Some falls on rocky ground where there is little soil to nourish it. Some falls among thorns or weeds which choke it. Finally, the rest falls on good soil and produces a bountiful harvest.

What is the meaning of this parable? After telling His disciples why He uses parables, Jesus then explains to them the meaning of this one. Let’s try to put His explanation in our own words. In the first place, He equates the seed sown in the path with those who hear the word of God without understanding it. Who could that be?

How many people today have only the most rudimentary knowledge of their own faith? For how many of us does our religious education stop with the eighth grade? Is there any other field of endeavor in which we would be content to stay at the eighth grade level? What would we think of a job application where the candidate’s schooling stopped at the eighth grade? Why do we spend thousands of dollars trying to get a college degree? What professional athlete would be content with eighth grade skills? Even when they make the pros they have to keep acquiring new skills in order to remain competitive. Why should life be any different?

The second case of the rocky ground is more difficult. We all know of people whose faith has been shaken and even lost by some setback, some sorrow, and even some tragedy. Our Lord speaks of tribulation. But today, how many people have lost their faith because of a bad marriage or a divorce? How many have lost it because of some word spoken by an insensitive priest or religious? How many have lost their faith because of the scandalous behavior of a few priests? Finally, it is so sad to see the death or illness of a loved one cause someone to question their beliefs.
We don’t have to work too hard to understand the third category.

            The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word,
            But then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word
            And it bears no fruit.

Worldly anxiety is something we can all relate to. It requires no dramatic event or crisis. It creeps up on us slowly and before we know it we are in its grasp. Young people know how important it is to have friends, but often the desire to be popular and well-liked can take over and ruin their lives. We all know that it is important for us to work hard in order to provide for the basic needs of our families, but how often do we see men and women so consumed by their work that their families are seriously hurt in the process of getting ahead? Even the elderly can fall into a daily routine that chokes them like the thorns in today’s gospel.

Life is full of snares and traps. Maybe that is what St. Paul had in mind in today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans.

            for creation was made subject to futility,
            not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it.

There is no denying that there is pain and suffering in the world. Paul continually urges his followers to remain steadfast in their beliefs and not to turn their backs on God, or ignore the teaching of his Son, Jesus. As in any endeavor there is a reward for perseverance.

            I consider that the sufferings of the present time are as nothing
            Compared with the glory to be revealed.

The seed, the grace of God, has been given to us all. It is not just the saints and martyrs who have borne fruit. They are just the tip of a huge iceberg. God’s grace is not a pious fiction. Despite all the pain and suffering in the world today, we just have to look around us to see in a multitude of acts of kindness, generosity, and unselfish charity the bountiful harvest that the seed of God is still producing.


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Reading 1. Isaiah 55: 10-11
Reading II. Romans 8:18-23
Gospel. Matthew 13: 1-23 (A sower went out to sow).

Sunday, July 9, 2017

My Yoke is Easy

                                    14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                


After celebrating the three great feasts, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and Corpus Christi, that bring the Easter season to its conclusion, we have entered into what the Church calls Ordinary time. Ordinary time refers to that time of the Church year that is not associated with Christmas or Easter. During Ordinary time the priest will usually wear vestments of green, the color of hope. In a way these Sundays after Easter will give us an idea of what the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus means for us.

In today’s first reading from the Book of Zechariah the prophet speaks of a day when the burdens laid on people by their oppressors will be lifted.

            He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim,
And the horse from Jerusalem;
The warrior’s bow shall be banished,
and he shall proclaim peace to the nations.

Chariots, horses, and the warriors bow are instruments of oppression and military conquest. The overlords of the people often put heavy burdens on their subjects. On the Fourth of July we celebrated our own Declaration of Independence whereby our founding fathers threw off the yoke of British oppression.

However, even though we live in the freest country in the World, there is a kind of oppression or burden that hits very close to home. I will never forget an incident that occurred years ago when I was a financial advisor. I visited an elderly couple in their home one evening to look over their finances. The man sat stooped over the kitchen table after his long commute home. The train ride to New York City took over an hour each way, but then he had to take a subway, and then walk a few blocks to his office. He hated the long commute and was sick of his job, which he had been doing for years.

After looking over the financial situation, I told them that there was no reason for him to continue working. They lived very frugally, and the income from their savings and investments was more than enough for them to retire comfortably. I was amazed when the man slowly raised his head and shoulders as if a great burden had been lifted. This miracle was not my doing but theirs. They had worked hard but just didn’t realize how well they had done.

It’s the same thing with most of us. I’m not just talking about finances now. Why do teenagers seem to be so gloomy and depressed? Why is there such addiction among young people? Why is there such a high rate of teen suicide? Why, in the years when they should feel the most free, do young people have to say what their friends want to hear; follow peer pressure and do what their friends want them to do? Why do they feel that they must smoke this, or drink that in order to be socially acceptable?

As we get older the burdens seem to get even greater. So many of us have had a yoke placed upon our shoulders by our friends and family. Indeed, sometimes we are the ones who have placed the burden on our own shoulders. We all know the stress of family relationships, job insecurity, raising children, or caring for aged parents. Half the country seems to be on some sort of medication, legal or illegal, to relieve the burdens. Who is there to lift the yoke from our backs.

Here is a good way to tell a true from a false friend. A true friend helps us to bear life’s burdens; a false one just piles more weight on our backs. In fact, the good friend is the one who actually lightens the load by sharing it with us. In today’s gospel Jesus is trying to make us realize that our burdens have been lifted.

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, And I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, For I am meek and humble of heart;… For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.

Christ suffered so that we would not have to. He told us to be humble and not proud; to care for our neighbor instead of always thinking of ourselves. He was always healing people. Did he ever hurt anyone? Jesus continually criticized the Pharisees for their rules and regulations that put innumerable burdens on people.

St. Paul was born and raised a Pharisee. In fact, he said he was a kind of super-Pharisee who followed all rules to their minutest detail. After his conversion, however, he realized that living in the Spirit and not in the flesh was the road to happiness.

For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, But if by the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, You will live.

Right before today’s Eucharistic prayer, the priest will ask the congregation to “lift up your hearts,” which is just a way of saying lift up your spirits and prepare to throw off the yoke that burdens.


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Reading 1. Zechariah 9: 9-10
Reading II. Romans 8:9, 11-13
Gospel. Matthew 11: 25-30 (my yoke is easy)