Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Man Had Two Sons

                                    Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                   



It’s not fair! It seems like even as far back as the time of the prophet Ezekiel, people were complaining that life is not fair. More specifically, they were complaining that the Lord’s way is not fair. Is it fair that people who have lived good, upstanding lives should not attain happiness because of one mistake? Actually Ezekiel is saying that it takes more than one mistake. He speaks of someone who deliberately turns away from virtue to seek what he calls iniquity.

In the same way, is it fair for someone who has led a life of iniquity to be saved by a conversion at the last minute? We saw in last week’s gospel that those who had labored only an hour got the same wage as those who had worked a whole day. Is that fair? Nevertheless, throughout the gospels we are told that the Lord has a special concern for those who have strayed or gone away. Moreover, we are told that we should rejoice when they are found.

Today’s gospel gives us a similar lesson. It is the parable of the man with two sons. One is asked by his father to go work in the vineyard but refuses. But later he decides to do the work. The other son is also asked to go to the vineyard and says yes, but then never shows up. When Jesus asked, “Which of the two did his father’s will,” his hearers readily agreed that it was the first son despite his initial refusal.

It’s easy to understand the moral of this parable but hard to apply it to our own lives. Many of us have been coming to Church our whole lives but might also be dealing with children who refuse to go. They’ve said no but we also know that many of our fallen away relatives and friends are actually working in the vineyard. They are supporting their families, educating and directing their children, and even, in many cases, taking care of their elderly parents.

I have to admit that some of the most Christian people I know do not believe in God or practice any religion. Like it or not, they are cooperating with the grace of God. Sadly, I have to admit that some of the devout Catholics I know would not even give you the time of day. Someone once said, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians he warns the community at Philippi to beware of complacency and selfishness.

Do nothing out of selfishness or vainglory,
Rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,
Each looking our not for his own interests,
But also for those of others.

We all know that our favorite subject is ourselves. We never tire of talking about ourselves, our interests and our concerns. We use social media to tell our story to all who will listen, and even love to take pictures of ourselves and put them on the web. Today, even Senior citizens know about “Selfies”.

How many times do we meet someone and all they do is talk about themselves? Worse, how many times do we meet someone, and all we do is talk about ourselves? Selfishness can certainly be observed in even young children. One only has to attend a modern birthday party where the birthday boy or girl sits on a veritable throne. Of course, teenagers are notorious for selfishness. Often their words and actions seem to indicate that the whole world revolves around them.

For many young adults the responsibilities of work and family will help to overcome selfishness, but it is really sad to see men and women shirking their own family and work responsibilities out of an excessive concern for their own self. Unfortunately, Senior citizens are not immune from selfishness. What can be worse than being confronted by a Senior citizen anxious to tell you all about themselves?

I guess you could say that selfishness is part of our human nature. Perhaps, it is even a kind of protective spiritual armor. In any case, it requires a supernatural gift or grace to overcome our natural tendencies. St. Paul tells the Philippians to follow the example of Jesus.
Have in you the same attitudeThat is also in Christ Jesus…He emptied himself,Taking the form of a slave,…He humbled himself,Becoming obedient to the point of death...

When we think of the two sons in today’s gospel, we should think of the first son, who despite his initial selfish refusal, gave up his own self to do the father’s work in the vineyard.  Time and time again in the gospels we are told that it is only in giving up our selves that we will find our true self.


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Reading 1. Ezekiel 18: 25-28
Reading II. Philippians 2: 1-11
Gospel. Matthew 21: 28-32 (A man had two sons)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lift High the Cross

                                    Exaltation of the Holy Cross
                                    

Crucifixion*
Station of the Cross
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT


In the Catholic Church a feast day commemorating the Cross is celebrated every September 14. Since Sept. 14 falls on a Sunday this year, the feast supplants the regular readings in Ordinary time.

From the earliest days the sign of the Cross has been a prominent feature in the Church. We bless ourselves with the sign of the Cross when we enter and leave church; and we will make the sign of the Cross many times during the Mass. The Cross is always exhibited prominently in our churches, and practically every church has Stations of the Cross where the faithful can virtually walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Many famous churches have even been built in the shape of a cross.

Most Christian homes will contain a cross or crucifix. Every rosary has a cross. We cross ourselves before we say grace at meals. Not only churches but also schools and even cities have been named after the Cross. Santa Croce is a famous Franciscan church in Florence, Italy. Holy Cross is a well-known college in Massachusetts. St. Croix is the name of a river and city in Minnesota. Santa Cruz is a city in California.

Today’s feast is actually called the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Despite being an instrument of torture and disgrace and death, the death of Jesus on the Cross has always been regarded as a sign of the triumph of love over sin and death.

The theme is set in the first reading from the Book of Numbers. The Church has always regarded the lifting up of the pole with the sign of the saraph serpent as pre-figuring the lifting up of Christ on the Cross.

Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,
And whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent
Looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

Today’s gospel from the Gospel of John contains one of the most famous passages in the Bible, and it relates to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
So that everyone who believes in him might not perish
But might have eternal life.

This verse is John 3:6 and we often see it lifted up on signs and placards in the stands during sporting events.

In the last few weeks we have been following Jesus on his way to Jerusalem to take up his Cross. We have heard him tell the disciples and us to take up our own crosses of humility, sacrifice, and service to others. All of us will have our own cross to bear in life even if we have never heard of the Cross or even if we reject its message. No one goes through life without pain. For Christians, the Cross is the way through the pain and suffering.

It is true that for some the pain will be greater. Here is Fr. Luis Montes observing the suffering of the persecuted Christians in Iraq.

“The number of martyrs the Middle East is giving to the world is amazing. It is not well known but it will be in many years, and we will speak of them like we do of the acts of the martyrs of the early years of Christianity. The faith they have despite the persecution is moving, as well as their sensitivity towards others...Almost all the people I know in Iraq and in other countries of the Middle East know a family member killed out of hatred for the faith. Others have suffered direct persecution or discrimination. For us it is an honor to serve these people. Lord knows what He will ask of me in the future but as for me I would like to serve here my entire life”

We do not yet face such danger in our own country but Catholics are becoming increasingly marginalized in today’s secular culture. In colleges and universities all over the country our children are being taught that religion is an obstacle to true love and happiness. Rather than being asked to take up our Cross, we are urged to abandon and even despise it.

For those who ridicule and hate the Cross, it is clear that they have not been able to eliminate the pain and suffering in the world, much less in their own lives. They have just given up the Christian way to deal with life’s arduous journey, but have found nothing to take its place.

Even though John 3:16 is justly important, verse 17 is equally valuable.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
But that the world might be saved through him.

Jesus said that if we really want to save our life, we must first lose it. We must give up our selfishness and pride, and find our lives in the service of others. This was the example of Jesus on the Cross. St. Paul understood this after his own conversion. In today’s reading from the Letter to the Philippians, he says that merely in taking human form, Jesus humbled himself even to the point of enduring a cruel death on the Cross.

Hopefully, we will not have to endure persecution and martyrdom like our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, even in our own personal trials, Jesus has shown us the way. His words, his deeds, and his example are the way.


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Reading 1. Numbers 21: 4b-9
Reading II. Philippians 2: 6-11
Gospel. John 3: 13-17 (God so loved the world)

* Image by Melissa DeStefano

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

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 tells 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 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 know a man who refused to forgive his sister for years over a really trivial slight. How did they 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 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...)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Take Up Your Cross

                           22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                        
Jesus Carries His Cross
Station of the Cross
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*


        
In today’s first reading we meet a disgruntled, fed-up prophet. Jeremiah 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 o enlarge.

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