Sunday, August 28, 2016

Humility

                                    22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                    


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).

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Narrow Gate

                        21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                   


In today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah we have an image of an almost limitless line of people streaming toward Jerusalem, God's "holy mountain," a symbol of Heaven. The Lord says,

            I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.          
Today's gospel reading from St. Luke gives us the same picture.

            And people will come from the east and the west
            and from the north and the south
            and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.

You may recall that we have been in the third or "C" cycle of readings since the year began. In this cycle most of the gospel readings are from St. Luke's gospel. From the beginning it has been St. Luke's intention to depict our Lord's journey to Jerusalem. All year Jesus has been preaching, teaching, healing, and working wonders on His way. Today's reading begins this way:

            Jesus passed through towns and villages,
            teaching as He went and making His way to Jerusalem.

All along the way He has been asking His people, including us, to join Him on the journey.

Despite the vast numbers of those who will enter the Kingdom, there is a hint in both readings that some will not make it. There is even the strong suggestion that among those who will not make it are those who might have thought that they had it locked up. Isaiah says that the Lord will go outside the ranks of the "chosen people" to strangers in distant lands who "have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory." This reminds us of the parable where Jesus speaks of a King who, after the invited guests failed to show up, had to go out into "the highways and byways" to find guests for his banquet.

The message of today's gospel is equally clear. The master of the house has locked the door and some will be left out. This parable refers to the Jews, especially the Pharisees, of our Lord's time. They will see Abraham and the prophets at the great banquet but they, themselves, will fail to be admitted. Now, whenever Jesus speaks to the Jews and Pharisees we should realize that He is also speaking to us. For just like our Lord's contemporaries we also run the risk of being locked out of the banquet.

Now we shouldn't get the impression that Heaven is a kind of walled fortress that is almost impossible to enter. When our Lord compares it to a banquet, He means that it is happiness. He never says that we have to wait until death to find happiness. We can start the journey right now. In fact, it will be fatal to delay.

            Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
            for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
            but will not be strong enough.

It's hard to know exactly what He means by "narrow gate" but let's consider the words, "strive" and "strong."  As He does on so many other occasions, Jesus says that concentrated effort along with constant preparedness is necessary to find happiness.

His saying brings to mind the recent Olympic games held this year in Rio de Janiero. Of all the athletes how many were strong enough, fast enough, or skilled enough to reach the victor's podium? Talk about a narrow gate! Just think of all the athletes who were not even eligible for their country's Olympic trials. Think about all those who then failed to qualify at the trials. Finally, even when they got to the Olympic games many world class favorites faltered and failed to realize their dreams.  

Whether winners or losers we know that all the participants had put in incredible amounts of time and effort in pursuit of their goal. Even though TV cameras will only highlight the efforts of a few favorites, all of the athletes must believe in sacrifice and self discipline. At an earlier Olympics, for example, one young runner said that he had dreamt of the Olympics since he was nine years old, and had dedicated his whole life to getting there.

However, when it comes to our own lives, why are so many of us couch potatoes? What do we do to prepare ourselves for the great events that we will face in life's decathlon. Today's second reading is about discipline, the constant training and practice that is required to face life's hurdles and trials.

            all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
            yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
            to those who are trained by it.


How many of us in our business and professional careers go to countless workshops and seminars in order to strengthen and develop our skills. We learn and practice these skills in order to improve our performance. Yet, how often do we fail to apply these skills to our own personal quest for happiness? If discipline and self-sacrifice work in sports or business, why shouldn't they work in our personal journey?

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Reading 1. Isaiah 66: 18-21
Reading II. 1 Hebrews 12: 5-7, 11-13
Gospel. Luke 13: 22-30 (the narrow gate).

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Set the Earth on Fire

                                    20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                 


Consider the Lilies of the Field


In today's first reading from the Book of Jeremiah, we find the prophet in deep trouble. Now we must remember that the Old Testament prophets were not fortune tellers speaking of future events. For the most part they pointed out and complained of improper behaviors on the part of the people. Not only were such behaviors bad in themselves, they were bringing all kinds of hardships upon the people. Of course, no one likes to hear such criticism, especially the leaders of society.

Jeremiah was perhaps the most outspoken of all the prophets. We still use the word "Jeremiad" today to indicate a particularly outspoken and critical speech. Is it any wonder that Jeremiah was taken by the leaders of the city and thrown into a cistern to be left for dead? After all, the city was at war and Jeremiah was blaming their bad fortune on their immoral and unjust behavior.

Today's Gospel presents us with a picture of our Lord in a Jeremiah mode. It is one of the hardest passages in scripture to read and comprehend for it shows our Lord in a way that jars our sensibilities. It seems to be so uncharacteristic. He says,

            I have come to set the earth on fire,
            and how I wish it were already blazing!

Then He says.

            Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
            No, I tell you, but rather division.

How can this be? All along, we have thought that His mission was exactly to bring peace on the earth. Isn't our goal unity, rather than division? From this passage alone it will be very difficult to answer these questions. It might help us to go back and read the entire 12th chapter of St. Luke's gospel.

The Gospel of St. Luke is basically an account of our Lord's journey to Jerusalem where he will be arrested, tortured, and put to a cruel and humiliating death on a cross. In  chapter 12, however, the teachings and healings of Jesus have attracted large crowds. He warns his disciples that this popularity is not necessarily a good thing. The leaders of society will plot against Him just as they did against Jeremiah. They too can also expect to be drawn before the magistrates and be persecuted. But He also tells them not to worry because their heavenly Father will be with them.

Jesus tells them, "do not be anxious for your life, what you shall eat; nor yet for your body, what you shall put on." He reminds them of the "lilies of the field." "Consider how the lilies grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these." Finally, He says,

            Sell what you have and give alms. Make for yourselves purses that do not grow     old, a treasure unfailing in heaven, where neither thief draws near or moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

Characteristically, Peter interjects, "Lord, dost thou speak this parable for us or for all alike?" Of course, He is speaking to all of us. He is urging us to get our priorities in order. Are we paying too much attention to the things of this world? Here we are in America, the richest country in the whole history of the world, and we seem to be so profoundly unhappy. We have so much food that our most serious illness is obesity. We spend hours shopping for clothes but will never think we look good enough. Every day we seem to agonize over the gyrations of the stock market, the real estate market, or the energy market. And still He tells us not to worry or be afraid.

Is it any wonder that many will not be able to accept such teaching or follow such an example? The teaching seems so impractical. How can we not care about food, clothing, money, jobs, and careers? I don't think that Jesus was asking us to shirk our responsibilities but He was urging us to get our priorities straight. As individuals we will all have to decide what brings true happiness.

Our choices can divide us from our families, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens. The teaching of Jesus was really counter-cultural in His time, and it is still counter-cultural in our time. His disciples suffered and died to follow His teaching. Martyrs, both known and unknown, have suffered and died ever since. Most of us will not be asked to die for our Faith but all of us will experience some degree of suffering in just leading our daily lives. Someone once said that everyone in church is there for a reason.

In our second reading today from the letter to the Hebrews we are told to take Jesus as an example.

            Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners,
            in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.
            In your struggle against sin
            you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.

We all have our trials and tribulations but thank God that so far we here in America have not been subject to persecution like our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. The news this week is full of the bloodshed in the Middle East but little attention has been given to the destruction of Christian churches and communities. These Christian churches have existed virtually from the time of Christ but now are facing the greatest persecution in all of their history. We can only pray for them.


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Reading 1. Jeremiah 38: 4-6, 8-10
Reading II. Hebrews 12: 1-4
Gospel. Luke 12: 49-53 (to set the earth on fire).