Sunday, October 31, 2010

Gospel of Luke: Zacchaeus

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle
October 31,2010

Reading 1. Wisdom 11: 22-12:2
Reading II. 2 Thessalonians 1: 11--2:2
Gospel. Luke 19: 1-10 (Zacchaeus, come down).

The Book of Wisdom was written in the century before the birth of Christ. One commentator calls it "a precursor of the message of mercy that Jesus taught." Today's passage certainly bears that out. It is a hymn to a merciful Lord.

But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook peoples' sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made...

This is a central idea in both the Old and New Testaments. God is Good, God is Love, and His creation can only be full of good and love. Where we find imperfection or evil in the world, it is only because of our own doing. Nevertheless, despite our failings, the God of mercy and love is always open to us who turn to Him.

St. Luke's Gospel is sometimes called the "Gospel of the Great Pardons." Only a few weeks ago we heard the parable of the Prodigal Son. Last week it was the parable of the tax collector who went home "justified" because of his humble prayer, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." A parable is just a story but this week we have the story of a real tax collector, Zacchaeus.

Remember that tax collectors were hated by the Jews and regarded as sinners because they did the dirty work of the Roman conquerors. The Romans knew better than to try and tax conquered people themselves. They gave out franchises to local leaders. A tax collector like Zacchaeus would advance a large sum of money to the Romans for the right to collect taxes from the local people. Once he collected more than he had paid the Romans, it was pure profit and his to keep.

Besides its spiritual message, St. Luke's gospel is a model of historical accuracy. We certainly can believe him when he tells us that Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho, was a wealthy man. The Jews despised men like Zacchaeus not only because they cooperated with the Romans, but also because they enriched themselves at the expense of the oppressed.

The gospel account of the conversion of Zacchaeus is sketchy but we can imagine what happened. Seeking to catch a glimpse of Jesus, Zacchaeus climbs a tree only to be called down by Jesus who informs him that He intends to stay at his house. Like so many people who came face to face with Jesus, Zacchaeus is instantly converted. He received our Lord into his house "with joy." When people grumble that Jesus is going "to stay at the house of a sinner," Zacchaeus is so moved that he offers to give half his wealth to the poor. He even promises to think back over his entire career and repay anyone he has wronged four times over.

The conversion of Zacchaeus means that he realizes that he doesn't need all his wealth and possessions once he has found our Lord.

Our Lord pays Zacchaeus one of his highest compliments. He calls him a "descendant of Abraham." It's not that Jesus is calling Zacchaeus a Jew, that would merely be pointing out the obvious. He is saying that the tax collector is acting as a Jew is supposed to act. He is giving to the poor, he will be fair in his dealings with others, and he will make restitution if he has harmed anyone. Anyone who acts this way is a true "descendant of Abraham" no matter what his occupation.

A vocation is a calling. The word comes from the Latin word, "vocare" which means "to call." It is the root of the words, "vocal" and "voice." Sometimes we use it in a very limited sense of religious vocation. In earlier days we used to speak of vocations to the religious life, the married life, and the single life. It's clear though that in the scriptures we all have a vocation and that none of them are unworthy or ignoble.

In St. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, he prays for that little community of believers. He prays that "God may make you worthy of his calling." He also warns them not to be alarmed or distracted by thoughts about the end of the world. If we are true descendants of Abraham we need not worry about such things. All we have to do is conduct our affairs honestly, keep busy following our own vocation in life, and realize what constitutes real wealth.

There is a famous passage in the Book of Revelation which reminds us of the story of Zacchaeus. It is the passage of Jesus knocking at the door asking us to let Him into our homes and lives. The passage is addressed to those of us who have become comfortable and materialistic.

You say to yourself, 'I am rich, I have made a fortune, and have everything
I want,' never realizing that you are wretchedly and pitiably poor, and blind and naked too."

Even so, He offers us a chance.

Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him.

There is a famous painting of this scene but if you look closely, you will see that there is no knob on the door. It must be opened from the inside.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Gospel of Luke: Pharisee and the Publican

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Sirach 35: 12-14
Reading II. 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18
Gospel. Luke 18: 9-14 (Pharisee and the Publican).

Last week we heard the parable about the widow whose prayers were answered because of her persistence. Today, we also deal with the question of whose prayers will be answered. In today's first reading from the Book of Sirach we are told that God "hears the cry of the oppressed." "The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest until it reaches its goal." How unlike our own society where the largest donors are the ones who get the most attention from our leaders.

In today's passage from St. Luke, our Lord addresses a parable "to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else." It is the famous story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the temple to pray. Let's look at the Pharisee's prayer first.

O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity--
greedy, dishonest, adulterous--or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.

I'm not a big fan of video games but I know that some games require the player to get past a number of obstacles of increasing difficulty before reaching the treasure or final goal. However, at the very end there is often a obstacle or monster that can't be passed or killed. Just when you're almost home, you're zapped or killed and you have to start all over again.

These games are very much like life itself. For just like the Pharisee we can spend a lifetime overcoming obstacles. Look how he got past obstacles like greed, dishonesty, and adultery. He's even disciplined himself by self sacrifice. He fasts and gives a large part of his wealth to support the temple. Still, he is faced with the greatest obstacle, the unpassable monster, Pride. He is not an evil man. He is a good man. But his success in overcoming all these little hurdles has made him proud or self-righteous.

It's really sad when we see such pride in our leaders, whether they be politicians, businessmen, educators, entertainers, or athletes. It's even sadder when we see it in our religious leaders who should know better. However, pride is not just limited to the high and mighty. How many ordinary families have been torn apart by a word or gesture that hurt someone's feelings. Once the wound has been inflicted and the backs have stiffened, pride sets in and prevents any reconciliation.

How often do we see ordinary Christians, for example, acting as if they were better than anyone else? Isn't it easy for us churchgoers to say, like the Pharisee, "thank God, I'm not like the rest of men."

A parable is not a true story. Our Lord just uses parables to make a point. Remember that tax collectors were despised by the Jews. It wasn't just a natural aversion to taxes. It was common knowledge that tax collectors enriched themselves unfairly and dishonestly. Moreover, they were regarded as traitors since they were doing the dirty work of the hated Romans. Here is what our Lord says about the prayer of the tax collector:

But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'

How many of us say this kind of prayer? I don't mean that we have to consider ourselves evil like Hitler. I just mean that in the words of the immortal Clint Eastwood, "we have to know our limitations." We have to realize that we are fallible, not infallible--that our ideas and opinions might be wrong or in need of correction. In fact, the great antidote to pride is humility and the practice of obedience is the best way to achieve humility.

For children obedience to parents is a necessary first step in developing humility. There is nothing worse to see than a prideful, willful child who treats his or her parents with contempt. Just think how much nicer life would be if teenagers practiced humility and obedience. How many of today's marriages break up because husbands and wives cannot defer to each others authority. Finally, even our senior citizens find it hard to surrender their authority to their children who must take care of them in their old age.

It might seem that in today's second reading St. Paul is showing a little bit of pride. We must know that when he wrote the letter to Timothy, Paul was in a Roman prison awaiting his impending execution. He is looking back on his life and says in all humility that if he has achieved anything, it was all due to the Lord "who stood by me and gave me strength." This is one of my favorite passages in scripture. Paul affirms that he has given his own life in doing the Lord's work.

I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith."

Hopefully, Paul's words will be ours when we look back on our lives.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Gospel of Luke: Our Father

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Exodus 17: 8-13
Reading II. 2 Timothy 3: 14-4:2
Gospel. Luke 18: 1-8 (pray always).

There was no more deadly enemy of the Jews at the time of the Exodus than Amalek and his tribe. In those difficult days of wandering in the desert it was either kill or be killed. Perhaps that explains the bloody and warlike tone of today's first reading. However, we have this reading today because it provides us with an example of persistency in prayer which coincides with today's Gospel account from St. Luke.

Today's parable, as St. Luke tells us, is about "the necessity to pray always without becoming weary." Earlier translations talk about the necessity of praying so as not "to lose heart." Our Lord makes it clear that if even dishonest and evil people give in to persistence, why wouldn't we expect our heavenly Father to hear our prayers?

Will not God then secure the rights of His chosen ones
who call out to Him day and night?

What does our Lord mean by prayer? A few weeks ago the disciples asked, "Lord, teach us how to pray." We know that Jesus cautioned us to avoid useless multiplication of words in prayer. He seemed to like his prayers short and to the point.

Scholars tell us that even the "Lord's Prayer" is a condensation of a number of much longer Hebrew prayers into their real essence. In it we begin by recognizing our right relationship with God. We pray that God's will be done--not ours. When we pray for our daily bread, we acknowledge that everything we have comes from our Father in Heaven. We ask forgiveness for our wrongs and promise to forgive those who have wronged us. Finally, we ask for help in avoiding temptation and evil.

Of course, Jesus always makes it clear that it is the faith of the person and not the words that makes a prayer effective.

In the last few weeks He has given us a number of examples of short but effective prayers. Two weeks ago He said,

When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, 'We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.'

Believe it or not, this is a prayer. In it we recognize our dependence on God and recognize our obligations to Him and our fellow man.

Last week the ten lepers only had to cry out, "Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!" to be cured of their horrible disease. To the one leper who returned to thank Him, He said, "Stand up and go; your faith has saved you." Next week, we will hear the famous story of the tax collector who went to the temple to pray.

But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'

We will see next week that our Lord makes it clear that it was the attitude of humility expressed by the words of the tax collector which caused his prayer to be answered.

Faith is the primary ingredient in prayer but St. Paul in his letter to Timothy insists that faith is based on the Word of God. Timothy was ordained by Paul and put in charge of his own local community. This letter is important because Paul is instructing the new bishop in his duties. Above all, Paul urges Timothy to be persistent and not to lose heart. Timothy, like many of us, learned the faith from his parents and grandparents. Paul tells him to "remain faithful to what you have learned and believed."

Although Paul's words are addressed to a church leader, they are appropriate to all of us. Our prayer life will be sterile if it is separated from Scripture for all "scripture is inspired by God."

For most of us the best way to be persistent in prayer is to attend Mass every Sunday, and daily if possible. The Mass is not a private or individual prayer but the prayer of the whole community of faith. If we look at it closely, we will see that it is a collection of prayers all based on Scripture. We begin in the Confiteor by recognizing our own weaknesses and faults. After hearing the proclamation of the Word of God, we offer our own petitions to God and bring our offering to the altar as a symbol of thanksgiving for all we have received. Before Communion we pray together the Lord's Prayer. In the Agnus Dei we ask the Lamb of God to have mercy on us just as the lepers did. Then we say with the priest the great prayer derived from the words of the Roman centurion, "Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word and my soul will be healed." Finally, at Communion we receive our true daily bread.

I am not saying that we should neglect traditional prayers like the Hail Mary, or the Rosary or the various litanies. All of these are profoundly scriptural. But we should avoid the mindless repetition of words. The greatest of prayers is still the Mass and the basic reason for attending is so that through all the troubles and trials of life, we will not grow weary and lose heart.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gospel of Luke: Ten Lepers

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. 2 Kings 5: 14-17
Reading II. 2 Timothy 2: 8-13
Gospel. Luke 17: 11-19 (the ten lepers).

Leprosy was one of the most dreaded diseases of the ancient world. In the Gospels we have a clear picture of the roads of Palestine, particularly those near the entrance of the towns, haunted by lepers, who would hold out their dreadful fingerless hands to awaken the pity of those who passed by, but who would only succeed in terrifying them by the horrible "lion's mask" that the disease sets upon the sufferer's face. Sometimes it happened as in today's gospel that these wretched people would go about in troops.

There was no cure for leprosy. The only remedy was to cast the leper out from society. The leper was to go bareheaded, wearing special clothes; he was to live far away from towns and villages, and whenever he came near a healthy person he was to call out in a loud voice, "unclean, unclean." It is no wonder that the disease was considered a spiritual as well as a physical malady.

Today's first reading as well as the Gospel both deal with a miraculous cure of the dreaded disease of leprosy. In the reading from the Book of Kings we have the recounting of the famous story of Naaman, the Syrian warlord, who traveled to Palestine to find the prophet Elisha and was finally cured by bathing in the waters of the river Jordan.

Today's reading is not so much concerned with the cure of the foreigner, Naaman, but with his response to his cure. Discovering that "he was clean of his leprosy," Naaman with his whole retinue returned to Elisha and offered thanks to God for literally saving his life. "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel."

Luke's gospel account today is also concerned with the response of the lepers that Jesus cured. All year we have been following Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Here in chapter 17 Jesus is traveling through Samaria and Galilee when a group of ten lepers calls out to Him. "Jesus, Master, have pity on us." In most of the miracles in the gospels someone asks Jesus for help, and then He either says or does something to effect a cure. It's always clear that the faith of the petitioner is the most important element in every miracle.

In this case, since lepers were not even allowed to get near any healthy person, Jesus responds to their act of faith by curing them from a distance. He merely asks them to follow the rules and show themselves to the priests of the village in order to get a kind of certificate of health. Just as in the first reading the emphasis here is not on the miraculous cure but on the response of the one leper who returned to Jesus after his cure.

And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked Him.

Just like Naaman this man was a foreigner. Jesus remarks on the gratitude or thankfulness of the Samaritan as opposed to the ingratitude of the nine other lepers.

Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?

What is the importance of thankfulness? Ironically, when we say thank you to someone, it does us more good than the person we are thanking. Psychologically or spiritually it is very important for us to acknowledge that we have received help and that everything we have received is not necessarily due to our own efforts. Gratitude is better than ingratitude. A grateful person is healthier than an ungrateful one.

Thankfulness to God for all He has given us is especially important. The central part of our Catholic faith is the Eucharist. The word "Eucharist" is derived from a Greek word which literally means thanksgiving. We could just as properly call it Holy Thanksgiving. In other words, every Sunday we have an opportunity to join with our community in bringing up our gifts of thanksgiving to the altar. Now don't we realize that this offering of thanks means more to us than it does to the Lord? Does the Creator of all things need our coins and dollars? Remember when we were children we would give our mother or father a little trinket for their birthday. They didn't really need it but they accepted it with joy because it was a token of our love and appreciation. For us it meant that we had a loving father and mother. What a source of consolation!

Today we live in the wealthiest society on the face of the earth. Even our poor have a standard of living that would be the envy of others living in other parts of the world. And yet there are disturbing signs. Who can deny that there is so much unhappiness in our country today. Millions of people are taking anti depressant medication. Just the other day the newspaper carried a story about the increasing use of anti-depressant drugs among teenagers.

Could it be that our unhappiness is related to a failure to give thanks. Why do so many people feel like spiritual lepers, unloved and unwanted? Parents no longer require their children to give thanks at meals, or even to attend Mass. Either we are pitiable creatures who feel we have nothing to be thankful for, or we have become a society of ingrates.

In either case we are in trouble whether spiritually or mentally. St. Paul says in today's second reading, "if we deny Him, He will deny us." One of ten lepers returned to give thanks. Is our percentage any better today? But to that one our Lord said,

Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Gospel of Luke: Mustard Seed

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2: 2-4
Reading II. 2 Timothy 1: 6-8, 13-14
Gospel. Luke 17:5-10 (Increase our faith).

Today's first reading from the Book of the Prophet Habakkuk could well have been written in our own time. His words are the words of a desperate man surrounded by a world full of danger. Look at the words he uses--violence, ruin, misery, destruction, clamorous discord. We only have to glance at the headlines in our daily newspapers to see the same words. Even the fictional shows on television or in the movies are full of destruction and violence.

It makes us want to cry our to God to stop it, to put an end to the suffering of humankind. For others, it makes them even doubt the existence of a God of Love. Nevertheless, the ancient prophet Habakkuk had a vision of a time of peace and happiness. He says, "the just one, because of his faith, shall live."

Isn't it interesting that today's gospel account is also about faith. All this year as we have been reading St. Luke's account of our Lord's journey to Jerusalem, the evangelist has been talking about faith. In today's reading the apostles ask our Lord to "Increase our faith." His answer is surprising. He says,

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.

Jesus knew that the mustard seed was the smallest of seeds and so he was telling the apostles and us that even the tiniest bit of faith was more than enough. We really need to look for something else. He then reminds them about how most people would treat a servant.

Few of the apostles had servants and few of us have servants today. Nevertheless, we all expect good service from those we deal with especially from those we pay. When we go out to dinner, we expect good service from the wait staff. When we go shopping, we expect to be waited on courteously and efficiently? We expect tradesmen to arrive at our homes on time and to do good work. We expect our financial advisors to give good and honest advice. We expect our doctors to be there when we need them. When all these people do their work, won't they be compensated?

Our Lord is telling us not to worry about faith but to serve one another.

So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, 'We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.'

What commandments did Jesus have in mind. We know that He spoke of two great commandments--To love the Lord, your God, with all your being, and to love your neighbor as yourself." But to be more specific, let's look at the famous Ten Commandments.

The first three deal with the love, and gratitude, and respect we all owe to our Maker, and they certainly include keeping holy the Lord's day. The rest deal with our relationship with our neighbor. This is what we are commanded to do.

We must honor our father and mother. This command is so important for children, teens, and young adults but it only increases in importance as our parents age and become dependent on us. We must not kill, but Jesus told us that anger was just as bad. Not only should we not commit adultery, we shouldn't even think of it. Stealing is out of the question but this would also include loafing on the job when we should be working. How many hours do we spend each workday playing Solitaire on the computer or sending personal or junk emails?

The commandment about bearing false witness would also cover all forms of lying. Lying breaks down the bonds of trust between our friends, our neighbors, and our associates at work. When it is practiced by politicians, it creates a general distrust in government that is like a cancer in society. Finally, we are told not to covet or desire our neighbor's spouse or possessions. Jealousy, lust, and envy will destroy us and our neighbor.

In other words our daily work and the way in which we do it is our faith. We must live our faith. Whatever our station in life, we have been put here for a reason. St. Luke continually talks about service and stewardship.

Today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to Timothy is addressed to Timothy as a priest and bishop but it is also addressed to all of us. It is good advice as we practice our faith. When Timothy was ordained, he received the same Spirit that we all received at Confirmation.

For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and love and self-control.

Life will not be easy and will not ever get easier. The violence, destruction, and ruin that Habakkuk saw will always be with us in one form or another. But Paul, himself in prison for his Faith and about to suffer execution, tells Timothy to "bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God."

Friday, October 1, 2010

Gospel of Luke: Dives and Lazarus

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Amos 6: 1a, 4-7
Reading II. 1 Timothy 6: 11-16
Gospel. Luke 16: 19-31( Dives and Lazurus).

Just like last week, today's first reading is from the Book of the prophet Amos. We must remember that for the most part prophecy is not about foretelling the future but about calling attention to the wrongs in the present. Amos is no exception. His criticism of the idleness and greed of the well-to-do in his own time seems to ring true in our time as well.

He says, "Woe to the complacent in Zion!" What accusations does he bring? Their homes are furnished luxuriously. They eat the choicest foods and drink the finest wines. They sing and dance with abandon. Today, we have cable channels devoted to each of those subjects. We have food channels, fashion channels, music channels, and home improvement channels.

One of the key messages of the Hebrew scriptures is the obligation to care for the lowly and the poor. All were expected to act as good stewards on behalf of those in need. In today's first reading the Prophet Amos claims that his people have failed to come to the aid of the needy, and that they will suffer the consequences.

This same theme is the subject of today's gospel where Jesus tells the famous parable of the rich man and the poor beggar, Lazarus. This parable is the third famous story in the 16th chapter of Luke’s gospel. Two weeks ago we heard the story of the Prodigal Son, and last week it was the story of the unjust steward who cheated his master. Jesus tells the stories to a group of Pharisees who were known for their strict, even rigid observance of every aspect of the Law. Jesus complains that while they make an outward show of goodness, they fail to abide by the true spirit of the Law.

Isn’t it obvious that the stories are directed to us as well. We live in the richest country in the history of the world. Even in these economic hard times the poor in our country are more well off than most of the rest of the people on the globe. Just the other day I heard a priest say that there are 7 million street boys in Brazil alone. These abandoned street children are ill-clothed, ill-fed, ill-housed, and ill-educated. Most are already involved in criminal activity and will surely not even live to manhood. Efforts to help often seem fruitless and counter-productive.It breaks your heart.

What can we do? Frankly, I think it would take a great saint like Mother Teresa to deal with such a problem. But she started out by reaching out to heal one single child. From that point through prayer and self sacrifice she built a world wide order of sisters devoted to caring for the poor. Most of us cannot match the zeal and skill of this great woman but maybe we could profit by looking closely at today’s gospel.

First, Jesus makes the care of the needy a personal thing. He does not talk about curing world hunger and bringing about world peace. He focuses on two men: one is incredibly rich and the other incredibly poor. The poor man does not live far away on another continent. He lives (maybe it’s more accurate to say dies) right outside the rich man’s palace. Jesus is saying that the Pharisees could have used the excuse that the beggar was unclean according to the Law, and not touchable by any self-respecting person. But Jesus is saying that this excuse in not available to us. The spirit of the law requires us to help.

Thank goodness most of us do. St. Paul certainly understood the message of today’s gospel. He tells the young priest, Timothy, that he has the obligation to see Christ in all those entrusted to his care, and warns him,

But if we deny Him
He will deny us.