Sunday, September 29, 2013

Dives and Lazarus


                                    26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                 

Dives and Lazarus, Bourges Cathedral
Thirteenth century

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. A few years ago 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.

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


Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Unjust Steward


                                    25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    
Caravaggio: Conversion of St. Paul
"For this I was appointed"



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 not only failed to come to the aid of the needy, but that they are actually cheating those they are supposed to help.

For these oppressors the service of God and their neighbor is of no value. The unscrupulous business practices that Amos points out in his own time have their counterparts in our time. It was common in ancient times to debase the coinage or medium of exchange used in business dealings. To diminish the ephah or add to the shekel was a way of cheating the unwary. In the same way adjusting scales to give false readings was a way to give less value for the money.

Today, most forms of cheating in business seem far removed from our ordinary lives. Most of us will never be involved in nefarious Wall St. scandals that will see us led off to jail in handcuffs. Most of us will never be in a position to embezzle thousands from our employer. Most of us will never be like illegitimate building contractors who take money but never complete the job.

Today’s gospel is about another crook, the unjust steward. He was cheating his own master or employer. You may recall that last week’s gospel was also about someone who squandered his master’s wealth. Last week it was the Prodigal Son. Today’s gospel follows immediately after that famous parable in St. Luke’s gospel and there is good reason. While there are similarities in the two stories, there is a profound difference.

In last week’s gospel the Prodigal Son, after squandering his father’s inheritance, realized what he had done, repented, confessed, and begged for forgiveness. In today’s account the unjust steward, after squandering his master’s wealth, neither repents nor asks for forgiveness. He just seeks a way out but only gets deeper and deeper into crime. He goes to his master’s debtors and does them favors by cheating his employer further. He’s hoping that these debtors will remember and reward him. After all, he admits that he dislikes hard work, and is too ashamed to beg.

People have wondered why the master seems to “commend” the unjust steward for his criminal behavior. “And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” Personally, I detect sarcasm here. It’s as if the master was saying, “Sure, hang out with those bums. Just wait and see what happens. Why would any of those debtors ever trust the steward when they know that he has cheated his own master? Even crooks understand the words of today’s gospel.


The person who is trustworthy in very small matters
Is also trustworthy in great ones;
And the person who is dishonest in very small matters
Is also dishonest in great ones.

Politicians like to tell us today that there is a difference between private and public morality. They think that they can cheat on their spouses but serve their constituents faithfully. Nevertheless, deep down we all know that if they are unfaithful to their own spouses, why should they be faithful to us?

In today’s second reading St. Paul asks us to pray for those in authority. He must have known how difficult it would be for people in power to be faithful and just stewards. Still, it is clear that it is not just political leaders who are called to be stewards. We are all called to stewardship. We must follow the example of Jesus “who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

We have all been entrusted with the responsibility to care for others. Husbands and wives have the responsibility to care for each other. It’s amazing to me how often people in business will treat their clients with the greatest care and respect, but ignore the needs of their spouses. In another place, St. Paul tells us that single people have an even greater responsibility to care for others. Speaking of responsibility don’t we make a great mistake when we give our children little or no responsibility?

Even though most of us are just ordinary people, we are all called to be stewards. In the eyes of those who have been entrusted to our care we are the biggest shots of all. Why on earth would we turn our backs on our loved ones to make friends with the “mammon of iniquity” ?

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Reading 1. Amos 8: 4-7
Reading II. 1 Timothy 2: 1-8
Gospel. Luke 16: 1-13 (the unjust steward).

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Prodigal Son: Repentance and Forgiveness


            24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    


All three readings today deal with those who have strayed away from the true path to happiness. In the first reading from the Book of Exodus, the whole people of Israel have lost faith in their God who had rescued them from captivity in Egypt, that land where they had become shamefully depraved.

The most famous story in the Bible is the parable of the Prodigal Son. This story is so moving and powerful that the Church returns to it over and over again. We have already heard it this year in the 4th Sunday of Lent, at the onset of Springtime. Now we have it as the Liturgical year is drawing to a close.

It is hard to mistake the meaning of this parable. The Scribes and Pharisees had been complaining that Jesus, "welcomes sinners and eats with them." Before giving us the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke gives us two other short stories. Jesus asked his critics which of them would not behave like a man who left his flock in search of one lost sheep out of a hundred. "When he has found it, he lays it upon his shoulders rejoicing." He calls his friends to rejoice with him "because I have found my sheep that was lost." In the same way, He asks, "what woman, having ten drachmas, if she loses one drachma, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?" The lesson is clear. "There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance."

Only after these stories does our Lord relate the story of the man and his two sons that we heard today. The story is so familiar that  I would just like to make two points. First, the compassion of a father or mother toward a child is a reflection of the love that God has for all of us. Like God's love it never fails even after the child has grown and become independent. Secondly, the road home begins when the son who had squandered his inheritance accepts responsibility for his actions and places the blame squarely upon himself. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son."

Many of us will find it difficult to accept the message of this parable. Is it possible to live in a family and not regard your siblings as rivals for your parents love and affection? How often are the parents' efforts directed toward the child who causes the most trouble? Who can't sympathize with the other son in today's story?

            Look, 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.
            But when your son returns
            who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
            to him you slaughter the fatted calf."

Our Lord knows what goes on in our own families. He even knows how when we are angry or hurt we will say "your son" and not "my brother." Notice the father's answer. He says, "we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life."

Today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to Timothy tells of another who strayed. It is Paul himself. "I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant." Paul never tires of calling himself the least of the Apostles.

            Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
            Of these I am the foremost.

Paul believes that his own life is an example of the way God acts as a loving parent who is always ready to welcome us home.

God is Love. We can turn our backs on Him and go astray but He can never turn His back on us. Too often we think of God as an angry old dictator ready to zap us whenever we step out of line. Today's reading from the Book of Exodus gives us the image of such an angry God but there is also a hint that even in those early days Moses believed in a God of mercy and forgiveness. Certainly, we can never think of God as an angry patriarch after reading our Lord's parable of the Prodigal Son.

The real sin of the Prodigal Son was that he squandered his inheritance in a foreign land. Rather than converting the foreigners, he was led astray and converted by them. Isn't this tragic story true today? How many of our children have squandered their spiritual inheritance upon leaving home. Isn't it sad that so many will discontinue their religious education once they go to High school? Many will cease attending Mass right after receiving the sacrament of Confirmation. By the time they graduate from college, so many will be confirmed agnostics or atheists. As someone once said, "When people cease to believe in God, they will believe in anything." They have given up the beauty, the wisdom, and the inheritance of 2000 years.

We can only hope and pray that when they come to their senses in some foreign land, we will be ready to receive them back without bitterness or rancor, and with open arms. 

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Reading 1. Exodus 32: 7-11, 13-14
Reading II. 1 Timothy 1: 12-17
Gospel. Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32 (The Prodigal Son).


Sunday, September 8, 2013

True Wisdom



                                    23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    

Giorgione: Jesus and the Rich Young Man*


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? Will all our accumulated possessions prove of lasting value? Look at how many people just have to have the latest phone or electronic device. They line up to buy it only to find that it is obsolete a year later.

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. 

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

*The painting by Giorgione is usually called the Three Ages of Man but I have interpreted it as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man." Jesus, dressed in a green priestly garment, instructs the young man. The third man is St. Peter dressed in a red garment that signifies martyrdom. Click on image to enlarge.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Humility


                                    22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    
The stained glass window seen at the left is from Assumption church in Fairfield, Connecticut.* It depicts the Holy Family in Joseph's carpenter shop. The child Jesus, with a saw in his hand, has just put two pieces of wood together to form a cross. In artistic representations whenever we see the child Jesus with a little cross, we know that it means he has accepted his role. Mary stands behind her Son with a look on her face that indicates that she is aware of His role and has all he concern that a mother can have as she contemplates his fate. At the Annunciation she too accepted her role in life. She told the angel, "behold the handmaid of the Lord." Joseph is not portrayed as a sleepy old man but as a carpenter in the prime of life who has also accepted his role as the provider and protector of his family. Coincidentally on this Labor Day weekend, Joseph is a model for all workers. The Holy Family is a model of humility, the theme of today's Mass readings.


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. 

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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).

*Photographic image by Melissa DeStefano. Click to enlarge.