Sunday, September 9, 2007

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Wisdom 9: 13-18b
Reading II. Philemon 9b-19, 12-17
Gospel. Luke 14: 25-33 (carry his own cross).

Today's first reading is from the Book of Wisdom and naturally it's subject is wisdom. In the last few weeks the Church has been offering us the virtues as guides on our journey through life. A couple of weeks ago it was Faith. Last week Humility. This week we have Wisdom. While all the virtues are gifts of God, we have to practice them regularly to stay in spiritual shape.

Wisdom is not intelligence, or book learning. We all know that sometimes the smartest people are not necessarily wise. Indeed, people with no learning at all can often be very wise. Wisdom is the virtue that helps us distinguish right from wrong in any endeavor. It will also help us in making the most important decisions in our lives. Wisdom often means looking outside of ourselves for guidance. Today we regularly turn to doctors, lawyers, and financial advisors for advice in matters of their expertise. We know, as it says in today's reading, that "the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans."

St. Luke's gospel which we have been using all year deliberately follows our Lord on His journey to Jerusalem. Every week we have been urged to accompany Him on this journey. Now as we approach the end it should not surprise us that the road is getting more difficult the closer we get to our goal. It will take a different kind of wisdom for us to find happiness. How many times do the gospels remind us that our ways are not necessarily the Lord's way.

Two weeks ago our Lord told us to be prepared to enter by "the narrow gate." Last week we were advised to "humble ourselves." This week our Lord indicates that if we want to stay afloat, we will have to throw everything overboard:

anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.

Not just possessions but also our most dear attachments.

If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.

What can we make of statements like these? What kind of advice is this? Right before Jesus turns to the crowd to utter these statements, He told another little parable about the goal of life's journey. This parable was about a man who gave a banquet and invited many to the banquet but they all had excuses for not coming. They were preoccupied by their own affairs. One had just bought a farm and had to go see it. Another had bought some oxen and had to take them out for a test ride. The last said, "I have married a wife, and therefore cannot come."

These refusals angered the man and led him to invite "the poor, and the crippled, and the blind, and the lame." All these were not tied down with possessions and attachments. He even went out into the highways and byways to fill the banquet hall. Wisdom tells us that only if we get our priorities straight will we find true happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.

Both of the examples of practical wisdom that our Lord gives us in today's gospel are as appropriate today as ever. Instead of a man building a tower, we could talk of one taking on a load of debt which he would not be able to handle when interest rates rise. Don't we wish that our leaders and politicians would behave like the king in today's gospel who used foresight and wisdom before committing his men to battle?

Is it possible that our Lord is being just as practical when He asks us to renounce all of our possessions in order to find true happiness in our journey through life?

Today's second reading from the letter of St. Paul to Philemon gives us another example of Wisdom. This letter is unusual in that it is not addressed to a community of believers but to an individual. Philemon like most well to do Roman citizens was a slaveowner. Slavery was a common and totally acceptable practice in Roman society. The Romans believed that it was better after conquering a people to enslave rather than kill them. Slaves were very valuable possessions in the ancient world.

Apparently, Onesimus, one of Philemon's slaves, had run away. Either before or after his escape, he had converted to Christianity and somehow had managed to meet up with Paul in prison. In today's reading we see that Paul sends him back to Philemon but urges him not to punish Onesimus but to give him his freedom. In giving up his slave, Philemon will gain "more than a slave,' but a brother in Christ.

It was our Lord's constant teaching that since we all have the same Father in Heaven, we are all brothers and sisters. We know that we are supposed to see Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters. Paul echoes this teaching when he says to Philemon about Onesimus, 'welcome him as you would me." From that time on it would be increasingly difficult for Christians to own slaves. It is true that there would be resistance to this "wisdom" but Paul's little letter to Philemon would be a constant reminder to Christians of the "un-wisdom" of slavery.


Monday, September 3, 2007

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Sirach 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29
Reading II. 1 Hebrews 12: 18-19, 22-24a
Gospel. Luke 14: 1, 7-14 (take the lowest place).

In today's readings we have some of the scriptural sources for that most important of all Christian characteristics--humility. The reading from Sirach sets the tone:

My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.
Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,
and you will find favor with God.

In last weeks gospel our Lord said that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Today He tells the parable of the guests at the wedding banquet who were choosing the places of honor for themselves, but who then had to shamefully take a lower place.

Every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

The word "humility" comes from the Latin word "humus" which literally means dirt. It reminds us of the words said on Ash Wednesday, "Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return." In Medieval Church art the virtues were often depicted along with their contrasting vices. For example, Chastity was paired up against Lust, and Temperance was paired up against Gluttony. Humility was, of course, always contrasted with the greatest of the vices, Pride.

Now, what is Humility? The readings today suggest that this virtue has to do with knowing who you are and acting accordingly. Sirach says, "What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not." Or as Clint Eastwood said in one of the dirty Harry movies, "A man's got to know his limitations."

All the virtues are meant to be practiced each and every day. Virtues are good habits in the same way that vices are bad habits. Like other habits the more we practice them, the harder it will be to break them. For example, the more we lie, the harder it will be for us to tell the truth. In the end it will be virtually impossible to tell the truth. In the same way, the only way to avoid Pride is to practice Humility.

How do we do that? I'd like to start by giving an example from History. Although Monasteries are no longer a key part of our culture, they were for over a thousand years a major factor, if not the major factor, in the development of Western Civilization. Most monasteries evolved from the Rule of St. Benedict, a Roman nobleman of the 4th and 5th centuries. A Rule just means a set of regulations or laws that everyone in the monastery agreed to live by.

The Rule told them when to get up in the morning, when to work, when to study, when to pray, when to eat, and when to sleep. We might be shocked at this idea, but most of us have adopted some kind of rule for ourselves. We get up at the same time each morning, eat the same breakfast, read the same newspaper, and so on. Ideally, by adhering to the rule the monk was practicing humility. He was following the words of our Lord, "not my will, but your will be done."

I'm not saying that we have to enter a monastery to practice humility. Sirach gives us some practical tips.

The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs,
and an attentive ear is the joy of the wise.
Water quenches a flaming fire,
and alms atone for sins.

The first line about the "mind of a sage" indicates that we should appreciate the wisdom of those who might have the knowledge and experience to instruct us. Our parents and grandparents are the first ones who come to mind here. It is a sign of the pridefulness of our age that we don't think that we have anything to learn from our elders. Teachers come to mind next. I recall reading about a woman who became a millionaire even though she never made more than $60000/ year. She attributed her success to the example of her elementary and high school teachers.

Someone once said that since we have two ears and one mouth we should do twice as much listening as talking. What a dream? At most business conferences I have attended, the participants have been more interested in talking about themselves and their ways, than learning from others. Invariably, the top producers are the ones who talk least about themselves.

The giving of alms was a cornerstone of Sirach's Jewish faith just as it is a cornerstone of our Christian faith. Just as Christ gave Himself up for us, the giving of alms is a giving up of a little bit of ourselves for others. It is the ultimate act of humility. For the medieval monks their doors were always open to the poor.

Today's second reading reminds us a little of the scene from the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion finally approach the great and powerful wizard after completing their mission. They discovered that they didn't need the wizard after all. By practicing virtues like prudence, loyalty, courage, and humility on their journey, they found their brain, their heart, their courage, and their way home.