Monday, February 29, 2016

“Comfort is our biggest trap and coming out of our comfort zone is our biggest challenge.”

Gospel Text: (LK 4:24-30)
Jesus said to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth:
“Amen, I say to you,
no prophet is accepted in his own native place.
Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel
in the days of Elijah
when the sky was closed for three and a half years
and a severe famine spread over the entire land.
It was to none of these that Elijah was sent,
but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon.
Again, there were many lepers in Israel
during the time of Elisha the prophet;
yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
When the people in the synagogue heard this,
they were all filled with fury.
They rose up, drove him out of the town,
and led him to the brow of the hill
on which their town had been built,
to hurl him down headlong.
But he passed through the midst of them and went away.

Which identities are viewed as sacred in our own cultures today?” Which identities cut to the core of us…to the point that a perceived threat produces deep wellsprings of anger, resentment, and hatred? For example, if we substituted the word “America” for “Israel” in Luke 4:25 and 4:27, how would most local USA congregations react? What about the American presidential candidates who purport to love Jesus?

One of the things this Gospel today should remind us of is “outsiders” in our lives and in our country are many times God’s insiders.

A second point to consider from the Gospel today is the Word of God does not always produce warm and comfy feelings.  In fact it often does and should do just the opposite.  This makes me wonder as I reflect on today’s reading,  do I hear the Word of God as always comforting or do I sometimes find it extremely upsetting? 

When we think we have things all nicely figured out, we probably don’t. 

If I am completely at ease, dare I say complacently proud, in my own version of Christianity, then I’m probably worshipping a false idol of my own making.

Today’s gospel is not easy.  A prophet may not be accepted in his own town.  I should not be comfortable in my own cozy, ideal and ritualized version of Nazareth, where we all think and believe alike and no one ever gets their feathers ruffled when they hear the Word of God.  Lent is a good time for me to reconsider my comfort level as a person who says, “I am a Christian.”

Sunday, February 28, 2016

“Thoughts are roots; Words are leaves; Actions are fruits! Every successful tree has all working normally!”

“When you assess your own life, consider it with the eye of a gardener.  Underneath the surface lies rich, fertile soil waiting to nurture the  seeds you sow. Even more than you can imagine will grow there if
given a chance.”

Gospel Text: (LK 13:1-9)
Some people told Jesus about the Galileans

whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.

Jesus said to them in reply,

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way

they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?

By no means!

But I tell you, if you do not repent,

you will all perish as they did!

Or those eighteen people who were killed

when the tower at Siloam fell on them—

do you think they were more guilty

than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?

By no means!

But I tell you, if you do not repent,

you will all perish as they did!”

And he told them this parable:

“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,

and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,

he said to the gardener,

‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree

but have found none.

So cut it down.

Why should it exhaust the soil?’

He said to him in reply,

‘Sir, leave it for this year also,

and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;

it may bear fruit in the future.

If not you can cut it down.’”

Many Baptized Christians think that if they do not commit mortal sins, if they're not harming others, then everything is fine in their relationship with God. In other words, if the fig tree is not harming all of the other trees, then everything is okay. Jesus says clearly that those people are mistaken. Likewise are mistaken those who subscribe to a certain minimalism in the faith, that if they basically try to keep most of the commandments, if they show up to Mass, say a few prayers each day, light a candle or two, put some change in the collection basket, the Lord will be satisfied or perhaps even give them a medal. Jesus says otherwise.

The owner of the vineyard is looking for trees that bear fruit!

"What is the fruit God wants?" "How do I bear that fruit?" The fruit God wants consists of acts of self-giving love done for others. This is what Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount, " Let your light [the reflection of Christ's light] shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Mt 5:16). We do this by "loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength"(Mk 12:30) and "loving others as Jesus has loved us" (Jn 15:12). This love is more than a wish or good will toward another, but a work, a concrete act of love. There are fruits that we need to come from our spiritual life, that flow from our relationship of love with God. There are also fruits called the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy that we're called to do out of love for God and others, like passing on the faith to children and colleagues, going the extra mile to care for those who need it. Jesus said clearly that when he comes at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, he will separate the dead into two groups like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. To those on his right, to those who are saved, he will say, "Come you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world, for I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty, ... naked, ... ill, ... a stranger, ... in prison ... and you cared for me" (Mt 25:31ff). Then he will say to those on his left, "Depart from me, you accursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry, ... thirsty, ... naked, ... ill, ... a stranger, ... in prison ... and you did nothing for me."

Jesus didn't give us an exhaustive list of actions, but he did tell us that what we did or failed to do for the least of his brethren, we did or failed to do to him. And on those fruits, or lack thereof, we will be judged.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

When sin becomes bitter, then Christ becomes sweet.

Gospel Text: (LK 15:1-3, 11-32)
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them Jesus addressed this parable.
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly, bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘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,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”

Isn’t that the story of you? Isn’t that the story of me? Isn’t that the story of every one of us? How many times have we left the “bread” of our father’s house for the “husks of swine?” And how many times have we come back and received the same welcome as this young man? 70 x 7 times?

Far away hills look green, there are many attractions in life, there are many voices saying to us, “Follow me” or, “Follow your desires and you will find happiness.” But the best offer of happiness is from God our Father, “All I have is yours.” God our heavenly Father is outside the door waiting for us to come to him. When we return he runs to us, clasps us in his arms and invites us into the party.

For the remainder of Lent we might try to make an effort to answer that invitation from our heavenly Father, “all I have is yours.” During every Mass we receive the same invitation from Jesus, “This is my Body which will be given up for you...this is the cup of my blood, it will be shed for you.” Let us go into the house and enjoy God’s party.

Friday, February 26, 2016

“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.”

Gospel Text: (MT 21:33-43, 45-46)
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:
“Hear another parable.
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,
put a hedge around it,
dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.
Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.
When vintage time drew near,
he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.
But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat,
another they killed, and a third they stoned.
Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones,
but they treated them in the same way.
Finally, he sent his son to them,
thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another,
‘This is the heir.
Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’
They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?”
They answered him,
“He will put those wretched men to a wretched death
and lease his vineyard to other tenants
who will give him the produce at the proper times.”
Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures:

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
by the Lord has this been done,
and it is wonderful in our eyes?

Therefore, I say to you,
the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you
and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables,
they knew that he was speaking about them.
And although they were attempting to arrest him,
they feared the crowds, for they regarded him as a prophet.

Saint Thomas More said that no heresy is all falsehood. In a similar way, there is no sin that does not have either a good object as its goal, or an intention that is believed to be good. Of course, subjectively believing an intention to be good does not make it objectively good.

This is seen in today’s parable about the vineyard owner. We see a spectacularly poor “logic” on display in the reasoning of the vineyard workers. How could they imagine that by killing the owner’s son, they would acquire his inheritance? The father was still alive: did the workers imagine that the owner would forgive them for killing his son, and bestow upon them the vineyard? Or did they plan to take the vineyard by force? If the latter, they should have killed the father in addition to the son…

Every one of our sins is an offense against Jesus Christ, the Father’s only-begotten, who called Himself “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). We imagine that our sins will bring us a greater, longer or more satisfying life. Yet Jesus teaches us that we can only acquire His inheritance of divine Life from the Cross.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

“The ends you serve that are selfish will take you no further than yourself but the ends you serve that are for all, in common, will take you into eternity.”

Gospel Text: (LK 16:19-31)
Jesus said to the Pharisees:
“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps
that fell from the rich man’s table.
Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off
and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me.
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,
for I am suffering torment in these flames.’
Abraham replied, ‘My child,
remember that you received what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing
who might wish to go from our side to yours
or from your side to ours.’
He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him
to my father’s house,
for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them,
lest they too come to this place of torment.’
But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets.
Let them listen to them.’
He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham,
but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
Then Abraham said,
‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded
if someone should rise from the dead.’”

Is this parable credible today in our contemporary situations locally and globally? Can we recognize real situations in the imagined one?

Most certainly we can recognize it at the international level, where the poor ─persons and countries─ are starving and all too many of them confined in refugee camps, while the rich and powerful pay only as much attention to it as it serves their political or financial interest. Pope Francis has convincingly called attention to this inequality in his encyclical Laudato Si’, but prophetic voices find it hard to penetrate the bastions of those on the affluent side of the inequality, perhaps a case of social “affluenza”(see P.S. below). Institutional global approaches continue to fail the poor, because both physically and socially they have no voice that can be listened to. So yes, Jesus’ parable is credible today at the international level.

But we can also recognize the parable at the national and local level. Our country is number two in the world in social inequality. Locally we need only to go to any of the various homeless shelters to see what is actually only the tip of the iceberg. Large sectors of our population live at or below the poverty level and they are in many ways ignored, while the rich and powerful ─“the beautiful people” ─ are glamorized. Jesus’ parable is surely credible today at our national and local level.

So Jesus presents us with a faith critique of our reality. Both Lazarus and the rich man die, for wealth has no say there. And now, deprived of the affirmation of peers and cronies, the rich man begins to see the light. The scene is reminiscent of despotic Sadam Hussein asking for leniency at his trial. We may have thought that perhaps in his loftiness the rich man was not even aware of the presence of that poor man at his door or at his estate’s gate, but he does recognize the beggar and he even knows his name: Lazarus. It was not a matter of his not being aware of the beggar’s presence and needs.

P.S. for readers outside the U.S.A. “affluenza” was the excuse presented for leniency in sentencing by a rich young man, who driving drunk had killed four people. He claimed that in his affluent environment he had not been taught to face the consequences of his actions.