Sunday, September 17, 2017

Patience and Anger


The Book of Sirach is part of the ancient wisdom of Israel, but today’s first reading is easy to understand. Not only can we agree that “wrath and anger are hateful things,” but we also know that we can hold them tight, like precious possessions. Even children know this feeling. It is easier to hold on to your anger, no matter how hurtful, than to give it up.

But Sirach points out that it is not only good to give up your anger, but also very practical.
“Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.  Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?”
After hearing this passage, it is not hard to guess what today’s gospel account will be about. It is the parable of the unjust or unforgiving servant. Actually, today’s passage follows immediately from last week’s gospel. Remember that last week Jesus said the following to the Apostles:
Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
We usually understand these words to mean the instruction to the Apostles and their successors to forgive sins in the sacrament of Penance. However, these words are also directed to us in our relations not only with our enemies but also with our families and friends.

The words of Jesus place an incredible responsibility and power on all of us. If we refuse to forgive someone who has offended us, we and they are likely to suffer some very serious consequences. In ways that we do not realize or understand, we may cause irreparable harm to the person against whom we hold a grudge. Failure to forgive will also inflict serious damage on ourselves.

In today’s gospel Peter asks how often he should forgive his brother, and answers the question himself. He knows that Jewish law required forgiveness three times, but Peter goes further and suggest forgiving seven times. When Jesus goes even further and suggests seventy- seven times, he is really saying that forgiveness should be unlimited. We should forgive in the same way that his father forgives.

Jesus then adds the famous parable of the servant who owed his master a great sum of money probably because of fiscal mismanagement or outright theft. The servant gets down on his knees and begs for forgiveness. His master not only forgives him but also wipes away all the debt. Incredibly, after his debt is forgiven, he is not even required to do acts of penance or penitence. Or is he?

The man’s penance surely would have been not to just say five Our Fathers and Hail Marys, but to forgive those who owed him money. Unfortunately, he did not see the connection, and when someone asked him for forgiveness, he responded unmercifully.

He had received a great gift but could not bring himself to share it with others. Despite his own wrongdoing he had been forgiven and let off the hook but he could not let go of his anger against his fellow servant. As a result, he forfeited the great gift he had been given. His anger hurt himself as well as his neighbor.

None of us are immune to anger. Anger seems part of our fallen human nature. I suppose it is how we deal with anger that counts. We may not think it’s serious but anger, like all the other vices, has the power to get out of control and take over our lives. We used to speak of the seven deadly sins or vices. Each of them had its corresponding virtue that could help us when tempted.

The virtue that works against anger is patience. The word “virtue’ actually means “habit.” In other words, we have to practice the virtues over and over until they become habits. Don’t athletes practice the same shots or plays over and over again until they can do them without even thinking about it?

For us, anger management must start with the practice of patience. Someone once told me that it helped her to deal with anger by sleeping on it. If someone or something offends us, it is a good idea not to react immediately. Patience is a great virtue. Sometimes things don’t look so bad when the sun rises on a new day.

Unfortunately, often those closest to us are the ones we offend, or who offend us. Why should we risk the loss of a close family member or a close friend when a little Patience would have healed the wound? In today’s second reading, St. Paul tells us that “none of us lives for oneself.”


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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Justice and Mercy

                                    23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                 



As usual today’s first reading sets the tone or theme for the rest of the readings. The inspired word of the Prophet Ezekiel warns us that we must act like watchmen for our neighbors. In other words we must be on the lookout to warn them of approaching danger. Like any watchman who falls asleep on the job, or leaves his post, we will be held responsible when those who are entrusted to our care suffer a spiritual death.

There are two problems that go with this responsibility. First, we all know that many will not listen even to the best-intentioned and wisest advice. Second, we may not be up to the task, and may even be the ones who need to be warned about our own behavior. Who are we to tell others what to do?

In today’s gospel Jesus gives us some very practical and specific advice. He is talking about cases where someone has sinned against us, injured, or harmed us in any way. What is our responsibility? How are we to react? He tells us not to broadcast the offense or put it up on our Facebook account. He recommends that we take the person aside and speak to him or her one on one.

This may sound like a trivial example but I think of the way coaches at almost every level will publicly berate a player for some error or mistake committed during a game. I have seen this happen at every level. Maybe I don’t know enough about coaching, but I wish more coaches would just take the player aside and point out the mistake without humiliating them in front of everyone.

Getting back to the gospel, if one on one doesn’t work, Jesus insists that we still should be willing to go the extra mile. Get a second or even a third opinion. In today’s language we might call this seeing a mediator, or even convening an intervention. If nothing works, Jesus says that you have no choice but to treat the offender as a Gentile or tax collector. In modern language we might say ignore or have nothing to do with them as long as they remain obstinate and unrepentant.

To me the most important words in today’s gospel are the following:

Amen, I say to you,
Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,
And whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

These words place an incredible responsibility and power on all of us. If we refuse to forgive someone who has offended us, we and they are likely to suffer some very serious consequences. In ways that we do not realize or understand, we may cause irreparable harm to the person against whom we hold a grudge. Failure to forgive will also inflict serious damage on ourselves.  How does it help us to hold a grudge against someone over what is often a trivial matter?

In the same way, offering forgiveness to those who have wronged us will often give unimaginable benefits to them and to ourselves. I knew a man who refused to forgive his sister for years over a really trivial slight. How did that benefit her or him?

In today’s second reading St. Paul tells us that all the commandments are summed up in the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In the great Gothic cathedrals statues personifying justice and mercy were often placed side by side. Justice and mercy are two great virtues but they can sometimes be in conflict with each other. Justice demands that when someone offends us, they should be punished or at least pay some kind of restitution. Mercy, on the other hand, demands that they be forgiven. How can we reconcile the conflicting claims of justice and mercy? Above the statues of Justice and Mercy there would usually be placed a statue representing Charity or Love, the greatest of all the virtues. It is Love that will reconcile.

As St. Paul pointed out in his letter to the Romans:

Love does no evil to the neighbor;

Hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

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Reading 1. Ezekiel 33: 7-9
Reading II. Romans 13: 8-10
Gospel. Matthew 18: 15-20 (If your brother sins against you...)

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Take Up Your Cross

                           22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                         

Jesus Takes Up His Cross
Station of the Cross
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*
Jesus
        
In today’s first reading we meet Jeremiah, a disgruntled, fed-up prophet. He has been insulted, beaten, and even put up to public display and ridicule. He feels that he has been duped or fooled by the Lord, and thinks of giving up.

"I say to myself, I will not mention him,
I will speak in his name no more."

Nevertheless, Jeremiah decides to go on. The word and love of God is like fire burning in his heart.

In today’s gospel Jesus reveals his goal and mission to his disciples for the first time. We remember that in last Sunday’s gospel he had asked them, “who do you say that I am.” Peter stepped forward and exclaimed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” After Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus reveals the mission of the Christ.

The Son of Man must suffer greatly
         and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests,
         and the scribes,
         and be killed and on the third day be raised.

This shocking revelation is too much for Peter. It's one of the mysteries of the gospels that every time an Apostle speaks we can almost imagine ourselves speaking. Like Peter wouldn’t we want to take Jesus aside and say, “wait a minute. You’ve been so successful. You’ve just fed the multitude, and you’ve healed people wherever you’ve been. You’re only 33 and crowds are following you. This is just the beginning.”

I think that one of the reasons why the film, "The Passion of the Christ," caused such controversy was not because of the violence depicted but because we do not like the idea that our Lord had to suffer and die. We know that the Apostles didn't like it either.
        
After all the wonderful things He had done, this was shocking news. Even more shocking was what He said next,

         If anyone wishes to come after me,
         he must deny himself
         and take up his cross daily and follow me.
        
What does it mean to take up our cross and deny ourselves? The persecution of Christians today has become so widespread and vicious that the news is finally breaking into the increasingly secular mainstream media. Events in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt can no longer be ignored in the age of You tube and Twitter. In China and India persecution is either sanctioned by the government, or ignored by government officials when it occurs.

Fortunately, most of us will be spared the call to martyrdom but we still have our own mission in life. For most of us our cross will seem kind of ordinary. But it will involve leaving our own desires behind and taking on a new responsibility. We have all been called to overcome our own selfishness and find our true selves in the service of others.

I think first of fathers and mothers who dedicate themselves to the raising of their children. I think of teachers who dedicate themselves to the education of other people’s children. On Labor Day I think of all those who work to provide for their families.

To save our lives, to find true happiness, we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and be willing to give up our lives for the sake of others. As we all know, this is not that easy and we may often regret it.

We live in an age of selfishness. We broadcast all our doings on social media. We take pictures of ourselves, our favorite subject. “Selfie” has even become a legitimate word. For years it has been fashionable for intellectuals to glorify individualism and criticize Christians for sacrificing themselves. It can be hard sometimes to wonder if we could have done something better with our lives if we had just pursued our own self-interest.

St. Paul addresses this issue in his letter to the newly converted Romans. He tells them to “be not conformed to this world.” Rather, he urges us to present our bodies as a sacrifice. Paul understood very well the words of Jesus in today’s gospel.

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
         but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.
What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world
And forfeit his life?


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*Image by Melissa DeStefano. Click on image to enlarge.

Reading 1. Jeremiah 20: 7-9
Reading II. Romans 12: 1-2
Gospel. Matthew16: 21-27 (Get behind me, Satan!)