From the time we are conceived, the power of touch is central in our lives. From our mother’s womb, to her first embrace, through all the cuts and scrapes of life, when family, friends, spouse and others “touch us”: — sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, the human condition is nourished by touch.
Why? For the obvious reason. We all need to feel worthy. We all need to be “loved” in one fashion or another. We all want to believe that we do mean something to someone or, depending on the size of one’s egos, to a whole group of people. Regardless of our stature in life, or the size of our bank account, or the titles we bear, it is a comfort to know someone cares. And touch is a means of communicating that. We shake hands, or we hug, or we embrace, or we pat each other on the back, or we “touch” over the miles, through cards, and emails, and Skypes and Facebook etc., they are all a means of reaching out and touching.
Today’s Gospel is a powerful demonstration of that but it is also far more than that. Because in its symbolism, it sends a profound message about what it means to be a follower of Christ.
But let’s start with the basics. We know from hearing this Gospel before, that the person with leprosy was an outcast – literally cast out from society because he or she was not only unclean and diseased but capable, in the belief of that day, of contaminating others. So the lepers lived a life that was outside of life – outside the life of their family, outside the life of their village, outside the life of their synagogue, certainly outside the life of the Pharisees – they lived a life that was untouched by the human spirit, by human compassion, by human friendliness and they were, by all means, untouched. But you know that.
So Jesus decides to challenge that ostracism. But more importantly, he decides to teach us a lesson about ostracism in general. In Jesus’ view, the “leper’s” problem is not polluting, so with one touch he restores the leper to full membership in God’s community, to solidarity in human fellowship. With that restored, what was the message? The message is that the human condition creates lepers every day. The neighbor next door is really someone we don’t care for, so we shut them out. The person down the street doesn’t have what we have so that person really is not up to our standard, our way live. Some people in our community don’t share our political views, so we shunt them. Or, dare I mention, those whose persuasions are different from ours, man, they have to be shut off, after all, if we go near them, we might get what they are.
Do you see what is behind this? Jesus doesn’t just address individual needs, but condemns practices that cause people’s misery. That’s why he touched the untouchable. That’s why he was so moved by the leper’s condition. Jesus challenges his culture’s judgment. In Jesus’ view, the “leper’s” problem is not pollution. With his touch he restores the leper to full membership in God’s community, to solidarity in human fellowship. And by doing so, what is the lesson he is sending forth?
He is challenging us that we too must work to take down walls that separate people according to religious, social, economic, racial, gender, etc. differences. The leper’s pain wasn’t just physical, but included the misery of being counted as unworthy of the secular and religious life of the community. He would also have thought that he was unloved by God. In the thinking of his day he would have thought that his illness was a punishment from God for some sin or ritual violation he had done. Not only would he experience expulsion from human society, but would feel as an outcast before God. How desolate was that! – to be suffering so much and feel that not even God was there for support?
A woman told me recently that after her divorce she was cut off from old friends, from some Church friends, even some family members and her parish. “I felt like a leper!” And what about the handicapped, gays, elderly, women, the indigenous, the very poor or even the poorer Latinos? Do we even stop to reflect on their condition? Do we ever wonder if they are cut off from the parish, their families, their neighbors and the community? Remember, the man Jesus healed was outside the community. That’s how the above-mentioned often feel – cast off and forgotten.
You know, some of us might say we “feel bad” for someone. According to what Jesus did that isn’t enough. We need to get in touch with our deep feelings of compassion and then do something for those who move us. And still more – we need to go beyond the usual boundaries our church and society observe. By curing the excommunicated leper, Jesus tells us where we Christians should be found – “outside the pale” – beyond traditional boundaries. Why? Because that’s where we will find Jesus and his community of the healed and saved. Think about the Sermon on the Mount. Better yet, read it again.
This story isn’t just about Jesus taking pity on an outcast and healing him, is it? After all, he breaks a strict religious code by touching the man. In the eyes of religious people a holy God required a holy people. The man’s disease made him unholy and so his presence defiled the community. He was cast out. Without his community how could he come to know and worship God, because God is known in community? In ancient times expulsion was a form of death. A person’s physical survival was impossible without the protection and identity offered by human relationships. Jesus confronts the people’s notions of God and religion by touching and curing the man. He breaks the barrier the community puts up between good and bad, clean and unclean
Jesus is founding a new community, which includes those he called to be his followers; but also the outcasts, widows, orphans, the poor and the impure. There is no exclusion in his community, contrary to the religious atmosphere of Jesus’ time and, it must be said, of our own as well. God’s kindness has broken into our world and changed our ways of judging. God’s kindness has broken into our world and changes the way we judge others and is reconstituting the human family.
As we get ready for the Lenten season, do you want to do something really different? Go and reach out to a person or persons you have avoided for a variety of reasons, see them first as a child of God, get to know them, let your kindness and your spirit :”touch” them, let them know that because you are both brother and sister, that no difference should separate you. Acknowledge their worthiness in the community of humanity AND IN YOIUR EYES. If Pope Francis can utter the words: “Who am I to judge” then how dare any one of us?
In so many ways, Job can be a very depressing book of the Bible to read. We hear the story of a man who loses everything, all because the devil wants to make a point to God. “Look at this guy, he’s only faithful because he has everything; take it from him, and he’ll lose faith.” It doesn’t seem quite fair, and we question how God could do this to anyone, let alone one who was so faithful to him. Yet his story very often parallels our own. All of us, at some point in our lives, experience suffering.
Whether we lose our job and livelihood, or a beloved family member, there are times when our lives seem to break down. We are faced with something that is powerless to change, which no amount of tenacity can overcome. We are helpless, and life for a time becomes a burden, which may seem too heavy to carry. For those without faith, despair creeps in. When suffering, why go on? What sort of God would allow this?
It is, precisely, in these times, that our faith is truly tested. It is in these times that it is proven whether we really have hope for eternal life. When we can no longer go it alone, where we turn shows where we have placed our hope.. It seems impossible to face reality and accept what we cannot change. Yet G.K. Chesterton writes: “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate. … Exactly at the instant when hope ceases to be reasonable, it begins to be useful.” Hope is exactly meant for those times when we have no reason to hope; it is the
confidence that, in spite of our powerlessness, there is one with the power to give us peace and joy. Those who have faith in God repeat the words of Job: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In the face of suffering, our faith and hope give us confidence that, no matter what happens, God has a plan for us, and we are promised something so much greater in the life to come.
The English writer C.S. Lewis was both a great intellectual and a man of great faith. He set out to give a rational explanation for the Christian vision of life. In 1940 he wrote a book called The Problem of Pain in which he brought his intellect and his faith to bear on the problem of suffering. However, twenty one years, in 1961, he wrote a very different book, called, A Grief Observed. In that book he recognizes that his rational, cerebral, faith has taken something of a battering. The book consists of the painful and brutally honest reflections of a man whose wife has died, slowly and in pain, from cancer. The book gives a vivid description of his own reaction, as a man of faith, to his wife’s death. His rational faith fell to pieces when confronted with suffering of a devastatingly personal kind. He writes at one point, ‘Where is God? Go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence.’ The name of Lewis’s wife was Joy. He had earlier written a book called Surprised by Joy in which he wrote about the impact meeting her had on his life. His book A Grief Observed has received a wide readership because of his authentic and moving account of the impact of
bereavement. Even though his rational, cerebral faith took something of a battering because of Joy’s death, Lewis did not lose his faith. Through the darkness of this experience he claims to have come to love his wife more truly. He writes that God had helped him to see that because the love he and his wife had for each other had reached its earthly limit, it was ready for its heavenly fulfilment. And sometimes when we lose someone whom we love so preciously, we need to learn that the love we had for that person is the love that carried him or her to the arms of our Heavenly Father. For reasons we will not know until the final days, that person was called home. But for reasons we must believe, it was our love that not only sustained that person’s passage but brought that person home with joy to be loved, in a way that is so profound that we could never fathom it.
Faith has to come to terms with the cross and it is at the foot of the cross that faith can be purified and deepened. Jesus himself entered fully into the darkness of human suffering. In today’s second reading, Paul says of himself, ‘For the weak, I made myself weak.’ That is certainly true of Jesus. He entered fully into the weakness of the human condition. Elsewhere, in one of his letters, Paul says of Christ that ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ On the cross Jesus was at his weakest and poorest; it was on Calvary that, in the words of Lewis, Jesus went to God and found a door slammed in his face, as he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Yet, that cry of desolation is itself an act of faith; it is the language faith uses when confronted with the harrowing darkness of loss. God did not forsake Jesus, but brought Him through death into the fullness of life. The Jesus who was crucified in weakness is the same risen Lordwho was crucified in weakness is the same risen Lord who is with us in our own experiences of suffering and desolation, just as he was with the suffering and the broken in this morning’s gospel. He is with us as one who knows our experience from the inside. Having gone down into the depths and having moved beyond the depths into a fuller life, he can enable us to do the same. He is the good shepherd who, even when we walk through the valley of darkness, is there with his crook and his staff, leading us to springs of living water.
In good times and bad, then, we need to persevere by abandoning ourselves to divine providence. Whatever the Lord gives us, we need to accept patiently and with trust. It’s almost as if we live with a sense of detachment, recognizing that all we have is a gift from God, and that we will merely enjoy it as long as we have it. Remember that disappointment ultimately springs from expectation, a presumption that these things are ours and should not be taken from us. We do not know who or what the Lord will bring into our lives, nor do we know for how long. It is in recognizing every moment as a gift and never taking our blessings for granted, that we nurture a spirit of humble gratitude. That is why our loves and our friendships should deepen each day. That is why we need to encourage each other daily. That is why we need to hold on to each other with hope, and with encouragement, and with gratitude. And let us remember the great hope in what the Lord has prepared for us. Let Job today be our model; in all things may we say trustingly, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Children are great with questions. As any parent knows they can ask the most profound questions in the simplest of ways. We all ask questions because, at heart, we have an instinct for seeking and searching after truth. This is a life-long search. We can never get to the point in this life where we can say, ‘I now have the total truth.’ The gospel declares that God is truth — and God is always beyond us.
We keep trying to come closer to the truth, the truth about our world, about each other, about ourselves as individuals, and about God. We keep questioning in the hope that our questioning will bring us closer to the truth.
In our search for our own personal truth, two of the big questions that drives us are, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I doing what I am doing?’ We seek after our identity, in the broadest sense of that term, and we try to clarify for ourselves the ultimate purpose that drives all we do and say. In today’s gospel, those two big questions are put to John the Baptist by the religious authorities, ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Why are you baptizing?’ In answer to the first question, John began by declaring who he was not. He was clear that he was not the Christ, the Messiah. John did not try to be more than he was. Later on in the gospel of John, using an image drawn from a wedding celebration, he would say of himself that he was not the bridegroom, only the friend of the bridegroom who rejoices at the bridegroom’s voice. In this morning’s gospel John declares himself to be the voice crying in the wilderness; he is not the Word, only the voice; he is not the light, only the witness to the light. When John was asked why he was doing what he was doing, why he was baptizing, he declared that he baptized to make known the ‘one who stands among you, unknown to you.’ He did what he was doing to open people’s eyes to the person standing among them, to the Messiah who was in their midst without their realizing it. There was a great light shining among them that many were unaware of, and John had come to bear witness to that light. John did what he did because of who he was. The answer to the question, ‘Why are you baptizing?’ flowed from the answer to the more fundamental question, ‘Who are you?’
‘Who are you?’, is a question we can answer at many different levels. We can simply give our name, or give or parents’ names; we can answer it by giving our professional qualifications, or by naming the role or the position we have in life. Yet, the deepest level, the most fundamental level, at which we can answer that question is the spiritual level. Who am I at that deepest, most spiritual, level of my being? Who am I before God? Who is God calling me to be? Here, John the Baptist, the great Advent saint, can be of help to us. He articulates for us who each one of us is in virtue of our baptism, who God is calling us to be. No more than John the Baptist, we are certainly not the Messiah. We are not the light. We know only too well the areas of darkness in our lives and in our hearts. However, like John the Baptist, we are a witness to the Light. Even though we are all far from perfect, we are, nonetheless, called to be a witness to Christ.
John the Baptist says in today’s gospel, ‘there stands among you, unknown to you, the one who is coming after me.’ The Lord stands among all of us, but he remains unknown to many. Our calling is to make him known, to allow him to shine forth in our world through our lives. John spoke of himself as a voice crying in the wilderness. John used his voice to make known the light. We too are asked to use our voice to make Christ known. It does not mean that we stand in the main street and preach. Rather we use the gift of communication that we have, the gifts of speech and writing, to proclaim the person of Christ, his world view, his values and his attitudes. In what we communicate and how we communicate it, we allow the Lord to communicate through us. Who we are as witnesses to the light, as the voice for the Word, shapes how we live and explains why we live the way we do. The answer to the question, ‘Who are you?’ grounds the answer to the question, ‘Why are you doing what you are doing?’ Advent is a good time to reclaim our fundamental identity, our Christ identity. If Jesus is to be born anywhere today, it will be in each one of us
All three readings today focus on the absolute necessity of our getting ready for Christ’s coming by true repentance, by reparation and the renewal of our lives. It’s one of those times in the Church year that we are reminded forcefully that this is a time for both introspection and action.
The Gospel tells us through John the Baptist how we should prepare to receive Jesus coming home into our lives during the Advent season by repentance and the renewal of life. Now John preached that the appropriate behavior for those preparing “the way of the Lord” was to be baptized “as they confessed their sins.” He wanted the Jews to prepare their lives for the Messiah by filling in the valleys of prejudice, leveling the mountains of pride and straightening out their crooked paths of injustice. John recommended a baptism of repentance in the river Jordan to the Jews who were familiar with ritual and symbolic washings. The most amazing thing about John’s baptism was that, as a Jew, he was asking fellow-Jews to submit to the baptism of repentance which only a Gentile was obliged to undergo.
St. John the Baptist, however, was much more than an unusual character doing unusual things. By word and deed, he stood out from the crowd and made a huge impact. His way of life and the conviction of his preaching made people sit up and pay attention. They had no choice but to listen to him, regardless of whether they took his message to heart or not.
We, as believers in Jesus Christ, are called to do exactly the same. Our world is also fearful. We live in an era that is marred by uncertainty and doubt. We live in a time of wars and amid tales of violence and brutality that are more than anything that modern times have seen. As the great hymn says, we seem to be “by a thousand snares surrounded.” The world of the first century and the world of the 21st don’t seem too far apart. We seem to be looking for what St. Peter says in the second reading, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar, and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth, and everything done on it, will be found out.” That’s pretty sobering stuff.
In the gloom of this seemingly imminent doom, the call of the Christian is to proclaim a new heaven and a new earth, by living “holy and saintly lives.” The world around us may not accept what we proclaim. The world around us may reject what we call holy. The world around us may be content to live in great darkness, but those of us who have been given the gift of faith must bravely and confidently cry out, “prepare the way of the Lord.” That’s a tall order especially if you are living the good life in a place like Boquete. It’s peace, it’s beauty, it’s tranquility and the civility of its people lull us into a false of security.
But if we remain conscious of the world around us and how quickly it can cause contagion around us then how do we then prepare ourselves? Well part of it is to follow the examples of the holy and devoted servants of God, whom we have already just heard. We have to stand up for our faith and truly practice it in our own lives. And then, we should not be afraid to point out the truth of Christ to others. After all, through our baptism, we have been called to be the witnesses of the Lord in this world, and as witnesses, it is only fitting that all of us do our part to evangelize the Good News, through our actions. We should live our daily lives – every day — so that all who see us may know the Lord through us and come to believe in Him. But that is hard for us as Catholics. We are not accustomed to evangelizing about our faith. In fact, the very thought of evangelization makes us squirm. Good works are Ok but Good words, Good Lord.
Well, I am going to take you down a path today that I took those who attended our community’s retreat on Friday. I am going to take you to a place where loving and living the Lord is going to be a lot more familiar,
On Friday we talked about the love that God has for us, then we moved to prayer as the way we communicate with God and we explored the real meaning of The Lord’s Prayer then we ended on something that is so personal and so intimate and so uniquely ours. And when I say that, I mean that this “something” is different in each of us but it is common in its effect.
This something is so unique because of its strength and what it can mean for our life.
This “something” is the gift of the Holy Eucharist.
What the Holy Eucharist is about is having Jesus Christ within us. Physically within us. Have you ever thought about the fact that each of us becomes a tabernacle when we leave Church ? We carry the true Christ in our bodies. It should be revered as much as it is when it is reposed within the tabernacle on the altar.
Think about that. Each time we come to Mass, and receive the Eucharist we walk out of here a living temple.
Would any one of us blaspheme in Church? Would any of us gossip in Church? Would any of us hurt another in Church? Of course not!
But you know where I am going next. We do that, don’t we? We leave Church with Christ within us and we act as if it nothing happened. I sometimes wonder if we just don’t take this gift as a matter of fact. Perhaps we have come to jaded, too blasé about what it is.
What The Eucharist is, IS the power to transform. It is a mingling of His Body and Blood with us. There is nothing more intimate in human nature. In that intimacy, each of us becomes one with God. Think about it. One with God. What does that mean in terms of all the hardships and joys of life? What does that mean in terms of how we face life? What does that mean when adversity befalls us? What does that mean when we feel lonely? What does that mean when we feel that there is no way out? What does it tell us about putting behind us whatever we feel guilty about or whatever wrongs we have done the past and living in this Christ filled moment? No matter where we have been, no matter what we have done, no matter what has been done to us or to those we loved, the moment we receive Christ, our inner nature changes.
The reality of the truth of receiving Holy Eucharist is so powerful that words alone are inadequate to describe it. We know that God is always around us. But when we receive Holy Eucharist, there is God WITHIN US With God, there is nothing that is impossible. Yes, it is true that God sometimes does not answer our prayers the way we want, Sometimes tragedy hits us and we wonder where is that loving God?
But no matter the joy, the sadness, the happenings of life, we have the opportunity to call on the greatest strength the world knows – The Presence of God. Why do we Catholics forget this? Why do we sometimes let our faith grow fallow? If our children fall away from the Church, why aren’t we reminding them of the gift of the Eucharist? If our fellow Catholics who have fallen away talk to us about not needing the Church to worship God, do we talk about Church as the place where they can receive the greatest gift that has ever been given? Do we talk to them about the gift of having God within in? Yes, it IS our obligation to present this to others. It is, the Sum and the Substance of our faith. It is such a gift that we should want to share it.
With that gift, it should be a simple exercise to prepare for the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas. He is already one with us. All we need to do to prepare during the Advent season is first to recognize His presence in us through the Holy Eucharist , secondly to be sure that our personal tabernacles are fee of the clutter and dirt that human existence brings and then boldly step out to help, to heal, to honor Him by inviting others to worship with us on Sundays, to remind ourselves that as we do not do for the least of our brothers, we do not do for Him.
Here you are. Here you are today. Here is your chance to make the presence of God within you even more meaningful and even more pronounced. He waits for you to answer that call. I pray that you do.
As any priest or deacon knows, you do not try to win a popularity contest in your preaching. There will always be some who like a particular clergy’s speech and others who do not. What each us does try to di is to preach from our studies at seminary and, most of all, from our hearts which we hope are spirit filled, I know there are some here who think that Deacon Steve talks too much about himself – to those, my answer is that my homiletics instructor in seminary always said to try and personalize each homily, let the people know that you too have gone through the same trials and tribulations. So I share some of those in my homilies. There is even one Texan in this Church — at least I think he is Texan, who tells me that, after each homily, he is convinced that he is gong to purgatory. Of course, I remind him that’s better than going farther down. But if my homilies have ever made you uncomfortable, then today is going to be a humdinger.
Today, we celebrate he Feast of Christ The King., Although Christ has always been recognized by the Church as the King of kings, the Feast of “Christ the King” did not receive its official recognition until its institution in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.
Today’s Gospel echoes the eternal Divine love and justice of our beloved King. He will show His eternal love to those who have shown love in this world. He will show His eternal justice against those who have failed to live a righteous life.
God, not by us, sets the criterion for judgment. Jesus suggests that when the sun sets on human history, God will separate us on the basis of our hearts. He gave us two commandments. We did not hear that his judgment will be based on the ten commandments on which so many folks base their sacramental confessions, but on the extent to which we listen to Jesus’ articulation of the love of God / neighbor spelled-out in today’s Gospel. He looks to both our decisions and the motivations for our decisions in our care for the least powerful in society with whom he identifies himself. Doing or failing to do for them is doing or failing to do for him. If we have been motivated by personal recognition, we heard in another place, “They have already received their reward.” The one required motive is love. It is significant that both the sheep and the goats were surprised at the criterion for judgment. Whether the sheep fed and clothed the poor, or the goats ignored them, they acted or failed to act from their loving or unloving hearts. Jesus is advocating genuine selflessness here. The “goats” ignored the poor, the “sheep’ cared for the poor, not knowing that they would receive any reward for their service. It was that attitude of loving concern that god rewarded.
Jesus, like those who preceded him, offers this parable to help prevent a sad judgment. We heard in the first reading from Ezekiel: “I myself will look after you and tend my sheep.” Our responsorial was a prayer praising the tenderness of the divine shepherd toward us. Examples abound.
Today’s Gospel is as if God is offering us a copy of the final exam early. He does this because it is his will that we should be with him forever. If God gives us even the example of Jesus to model the way, how can any of us refuse to listen?
We’ve come the full circle, as it were, liturgically, and are confronted once again with the questions: who or what really rules in our world, our lives, our hearts? From whom do we take our direction? Is it Jesus Christ or is it Barack Obama or Julia Gillard or the media or pop heroes or our peers? What are the sovereign values in our lives: are they Jesus’ values of nourishing the needy, liberating those who are trapped, loving those who are unlovely, or the values of ‘the world’ such as accumulating wealth and power, always getting my own way, sacrificing for no one, committing to nothing? What are the ruling passions in our lives: are they faith, hope and love, or are they greed, envy, grudges, control, the very things that lie behind both the world wars and the more local family feuds?
Every day we Christians pray to God “Thy kingdom come” but do we really mean it? Do we really want Christ to rule our feelings, character, relationships, our decisions and our destiny? Calling Him King is easy in the liturgy. It is easy to ask Him to conquer the dictators and the nursing home arsonists. But do we really want Christ to conquer us? Of course – you might say – of course I love God and want to know and serve Him in this life and be with Him forever in the next: that’s why I’m here today and quite regularly. Most of us could say that, I guess. But to ask Christ to be your King is to trust totally in His providence and there’s the rub,
Now, there is one view of providence that is not much better than superstition: it’s the idea that I can just close my eyes and walk across the M2 and God will protect me. Or that when I bump into someone I was thinking of, it must be because God organised things that way. Or that whatever mess I make of my life God is somehow to blame and it’s up to Him to fix it. Coincidence and human irresponsibility are not providence.Providence, as Christians understand it, is God’s continuing creative and re-creative activity. God doesn’t just make the world and then go away on holidays, leaving us to our own devices. No, at every moment He continues to sustain the universe, to hold each one of us ‘in the palm of His hand’, even those who’ve never heard of Him or who reject Him. He is present and active with His creative power and redeeming love, not just at the start or the end, not just when we are noticing. In a sense God can’t help Himself: having made us immortal beings yet subject to hunger and those other needs in our Gospel, He has committed to us for the long haul, all the way to heaven.
As human beings we are called out from among all the creatures to be the ones who are free and rational and loving enough to pursue the good and reach for the stars. As Christians we are called out from among all humanity to be the ones who are priestly, prophetic and kingly enough to serve Christ in the little ones and reach for heaven. As individuals we are called out from among all other Christians to serve God in some particular way, as priests, spouses, religious or however. All talk of vocation, then, is really talk of providence, of God’s knowing, guiding hand, and our willingness to fall into step with it.
. When Mother Teresa accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1979, part of her acceptance speech went like this:
“It is not enough for us to say: ‘I love God, but I do not love my neighbor.’ Saint John says that you are a liar if you say you love God and you don’t love your neighbor. (1 John 4:20) How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you see, whom you touch, with whom you live? And so this is very important for us to realize that love, to be true, has to hurt.”
How can we love like this? Where will we get the power to love Jesus in others in this way as he asks in the Gospel today? (Matt 25:31-46) In a letter to the people of Albania on April 28th 1997 Mother Teresa gives the key to being able to see Jesus in others. The key to loving others is prayer. She wrote,
“To be able to love one another, we must pray much, for prayer gives a clean heart and a clean heart can see God in our neighbor. If now we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten how to see God in one another. If each person saw God in his neighbor, do you think we would need guns and bombs?”
We may not remember every time we are talking to someone, “Jesus is in this person.” In the parable in today’s Gospel the people were not aware of the presence of God in those around them. That is why in the parable both those to left and to the right of the Son of Man ask, “Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?” (Matt 25:37,44) Because we do not always think like this Mother Teresa rightly said,
“If now we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten how to see God in one another. If each person saw God in his neighbor, do you think we would need guns and bombs?”
Now here in Panama, it is even harder. Most of the people at this Mass are retired and living the good life and that is all well and good – you worked hard, you deserve to spend your last years enjoying it. But that does not mean you stopped following Christ. None of you turned in your badge or you would not be here today. Since that is the case, then the need to keep giving of yourself and serving Jesus by serving others is as important as it was when you were 30 years younger. The needs here are great. There is the Foundation for those who are disabled, there is Buenos Vicinos, there is the Panamanian mission twice each month ,there is The Stephen Ministry and the list goes on. There are people right here, right know, who need a kind word, a helping hand and perhaps financial help.
Allow me to repeat something I said earlier: Christ The King looks to both our decisions and the motivations for our decisions in our care for the least powerful in society with whom he identifies himself. Doing or failing to do for them is doing or failing to do for him.
Thinking like this means thinking in a new way, putting on a new mind, letting our brains be washed with the Gospel of Jesus. And as Mother Teresa said, it is through prayer that we will receive the grace to see others with this new mind of Jesus.
When we put on this new mind, the mind of Jesus, then his kingdom is coming in our world. Then Jesus is King of our world.
This story of judgment is more than a call to serve. It’s more than a call to be good, and to do the right thing. Sure, it’s that, but it’s much more.
It’s also a call to look, to notice, to devote our days and our lives in the search for the face of God in all that we do. It’s a call, above all, to see.
Psychologists have long known that every person has two great longings and inward needs. The first is to be loved, and the second is to love. But when pressures and heartaches come into our lives, many give up any hope of ever finding love.
The tragedy is that we often look in the wrong places to fill this deep, deep need and longing. Some substitute lust for love. Others pursue material things or superficial relationships – all in the futile attempt to fill a God-shaped cookie cutter that has left what they feel is a vacuum in their human heart.
Then there are those who have found the real deal. A partner whom they love and trust. But sometimes there is still missing in that love mold that has been genetically stamped onto your heart.
Here’s the deal: The heart of an active, dynamic and satisfying Catholic faith isn’t about the rules, it’s about the relationship. The God who created the heavens and the earth knows each one of us — intimately. He loves us more than we can possibly imagine. And you know what He wants? He desires to be in a relationship with us — a personal, intimate communion. He wants us to turn to Him, to know Him, to hear Him. He wants to shower His love on us, to enlarge our hearts, to bring about what is absolutely best for us in our lives as long as it is consistent with His plan.
But He can’t do that if we don’t seek Him out, if we don’t open the door to that relationship, if we don’t make room for Him in our lives.
I think that, even among those of us Catholics who do believe in a personal God, it is easy to slip from a “relationship” mentality to a “rules” mentality. Our catechesis may have revolved mostly around the “thou shalt not’s.” And it’s a unny thing about Catholics. Not a lot of people around us actually talk about having a real relationship with God, and those who do frequently strike us as, well, perhaps a bit zealous. You and I have met them. == even here in Boquete/ The person whose relationship with God is so intimate that he or she has to talk about it incessantly, sometimes even show off about it .(A conference organizer I met once described his day thusly: “Satan tried to blow my car up, but Jesus made me a real nice cup of coffee.”)
I also think that we are sometimes suspicious of the whole thing. Most of us have been accosted by well-meaning but over-zealous Protestants demanding to know if we “have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” The implication, embraced by many, seems to be that as long as there is a relationship, we are free to disregard the rules. And that just seems too darned easy to us.
What we NEED to know is that: God loves you. Crazy much. He created you, and He is head-over-heels in love with you. He desires that you know Him. He wants to pour His love into your heart. He knows, as only God can, what is absolutely best for you, and He wants you to trust Him to guide you to it.
He created you in such a way that you will only be complete and whole when you find true, lasting satisfaction and fulfillment in Him.
But He doesn’t force any of it. He created us to be free and to freely choose whether we wish to avail ourselves of His loving care or not.
Now, let’s not skip over the rules. Of course, the rules matter. Rules matter in any relationship. You can’t remain close to somebody while insisting on your right to constantly kick his cat, or steal his money, or mistreat his loved ones. So the rules are really parameters of our relationship. They define and orient us in our relationship with the one who made us and loves us. It’s no different than the parameters in any loving relationship. After a while, we both define together the way we interact with each other. Well, Jesus came to tell us about those parameters. And he demonstrated them through parables, miracles and daily actions. But he summed them up with the Two Great Commandments:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a]38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” “
Fortunately, the God who loves us so much and so intimately, by definition, knows our brokenness. Not only does He forgive our failings, but through our relationship of prayer and the sacramental life of the Church, He makes of us a “new creation,” changing our hearts and actually making it easier to “follow the rules.” That’s why St. Paul said that, in Christ, we are no longer “under the law.” We become transformed. It’s no longer about following the rules, it’s about loving the beloved. We don’t avoid sin because we fear punishment. It loses its appeal to us because it is a violation of the relationship of our God who loves us to the core. Do you see the magnitude of that mind change about rules. We don’t obey these rules because of what they say; instead we observe the parameters of a loving relationship with The Great Lover. It’s no different than following the parameters of a loving relationship with another person. We respect them and the things that define our relationship with them because we love them and they love us in return. The only difference here is THE Great Friend, The GREAT Lover, reminds us in the two greatest of commandments that he loves ALL those around us and he wants to be sure that we can, at least, be in harmony with them. Would any of us intentionally hurt or insult our dearest friends friend?
Do you want to learn more about what these loving relationships can look like? Read the lives of the saints. You will find them beautiful, dynamic and life-changing. You will also find that no two are the same, just as no two human relationships could be identical. You are unique, and your relationship with God will be uniquely yours. But you will find one commonality — somewhere in their life, they discovered or focused that they were loved by God and that love motivated them to love him in return. Some came to the realization of that love early; some came to it late in life.
How does that realization start? It begins with communication or, in this case, more properly, with prayer. Just as any human relationship does. Talk to Him. Invite Him into your heart. Tell Him you want to know Him better. Read Scripture, where He reveals Himself to us. Receive the sacraments prayerfully. Visit Him in the Blessed Sacrament. Create silence in your life, so that He can be heard above the noise. Seek competent spiritual direction if it’s available to you. Pray some more. That’s what communication with The Great Lover is all about. No relationship survives without communications, without intimacy, without whispering to each other how much you care for one another.
It’s interesting to me that the The Second Vatican Council and all of the recent Popes have urged all the baptized to respond to Jesus’ command to “go make disciples of all nations.” The Decree on the Mission [Activity] of the Church says that proclamation and conversion must be, “sufficient to make a man realize that he has been snatched away from sin and led into the mystery of God’s love, who called him to enter into a personal relationship with Him in Christ” (§13).
The language here is clear: God seeks a relationship with each one of us that is personal. These same words are echoed by St. Pope John Paul II when he wrote:
“In the complex reality of mission, initial proclamation has a central and irreplaceable role, since it introduces man “into the mystery of the love of God, who invites him to enter into a personal relationship with himself in Christ” and opens the way to conversion. (Redemptoris Missio, 44)”
We are reminded through the words of Scripture that God seeks a “personal relationship” with His people: “The word of God is the first source of all Christian spirituality. It gives rise to a personal relationship with the living God and with his saving and sanctifying will,” (Vita Consecrata, 94).
The Bible “gives rise to a personal relationship” because Jesus reveals Himself to us on every page. The Holy Spirit, the one who “searches the depths of God,” (1 Cor 2:10) inspires that word in such a way that we actually encounter Christ in the words of scripture. He speaks directly to our spirit, enabling us to know Him. Yet, in many Catholic homes, the Bible lays on a table sadly accumulating the dust and debris of our lives.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called for a “new season” of the reading of the Word of God by all the baptized, “so that their prayerful and faith-filled reading of the Bible will, with time, deepen their personal relationship with Jesus”(Verbum Domini, 72).
He also reminds us that the personal relationship we have with Jesus is deepened and shared most profoundly in the Eucharist:
The personal relationship which the individual believer establishes with Jesus present in the Eucharist constantly points beyond itself to the whole communion of the Church and nourishes a fuller sense of membership in the Body of Christ. (Sacramentum Caritatis, 68)
It’s obvious from these texts that the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” is an important part of the way the Magisterium of the Church refers to our faith in Christ. It’s not foreign or simply a Protestant imposition. Rather, it expresses an essential element of a deeply Catholic understanding of conversion and discipleship.
Folks, it’s there. It’s not from a pamphlet received from a Seventh Day Adventist or a Mormon on a mission. This is our faith talking to us. This is the Catholic faith—the Church that Jesus founded and has existed through apostolic succession for 2014 years. THAT Church is telling us and calling us to have a personal relationship with Christ. More than that, it is Christ himself calling us to know him better, to experience the love that he bestows, to remind us that His presence is with us always and, even in the greatest of tragedies, He is there to comfort us and love us.
Always remember he doesn’t cause the tragedies of our lives – the free will of mankind and nature does – even when sickness overtakes one that we love – that is the biological nature that is taking of – when that happens, we sometimes lash out at The Great Lover and wonder where He is or why He didn’t answer our prayer. But you know what his answer is? I was there and I am here. Nature or free will took its course but now because I love you so much and those that you love, I am taking them with me. To care for them, to love them, to hold them and to keep them perfect until you meet them again. My friends, THAT IS LOVE. And THAT LOVE then comforts us and carries us through our grief.
Isn’t that what a Great Friend does? Is that’s what someone who loves does. THAT is personal. That is intimate. THAT is what a personal relationship with God is about.
So now, let’s talk about that. We are going to break into discussion groups, each with a leader and share our observations about a personal relationship with God.
PART 2 – How We Pray
So that is the beginning and strangely the end – prayer. We begin our life at baptism with prayer and we end our life, at death with prayer.
But it is the donut hole in the middle which is important. To know Jesus as our personal savior requires us to be in prayer with him. Because being in prayer with Jesus is being in communion with him.
It’s prayer that is constant, It’s prayer that goes on throughout the day and only stops when we close our eyes.
This constancy of prayer – this continual prayer – can be summed up in a lot of ways, For me, it begins as I open my eyes and go to prayer. My prayer is simple but it calls for constancy in my life. Here it is: May the thoughts from my mind bring You glory, may the words from my mouth portray Your glory, may the actions of my hands bring you glory.
Now that’s the start of the day but imagine if those words – that simple prayer actually was your daily life. WOW! METO! If each of us could do that, what a changed person we would be and what a changed place we would live in.
But now I want to take you to the foundational prayer of our Church – the very way Jesus taught us to prayer when he gave us the words of, what is come to be known, as the Our Father: But it is more than the foundational prayer of the Church. It is THE prayer that tell how we are loved and how we should be living our life.
The Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect of prayers…. In it we ask, not only for all the things we can rightly desire, but also in the sequence that they should be desired. This prayer not only teaches us to ask for things, but also in what order we should desire them.
The first communities prayed the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, in place of the “Eighteen Benedictions” customary in Jewish piety.
So let’s begin with the words of the prayer and what they mean,
We can invoke God as “Father” because he is revealed to us by his Son become man and because his Spirit makes him known to us. When we pray to the Father, we are in communion with him and with his Son, Jesus Christ. Then we know and recognize him with an ever new sense of wonder. The first phrase of the Our Father is a blessing of adoration before it is a supplication. For it is the glory of God that we should recognize him as “Father,” the true God. When we use the words “Our Father,” we give him thanks for having revealed his name to us, for the gift of believing in it, and for the indwelling of his Presence in us
Praying to our Father should develop in us two fundamental dispositions:
First,the desire to become like him: though created in his image, we are restored to HIm; and we must respond to this grace. Or to put it another way. We must remember… and know that when we call God “our Father” we ought to behave as sons and daughters of God.
Secondly, You cannot call the God of all kindness your Father if you preserve a cruel and inhuman heart; for in this case you no longer have in you the marks of the heavenly Father’s kindness.
So the words “Our Father” are pregnant with implication.
Who Art In Heaven
“Our Father who art in heaven” is rightly understood to mean that God is in the hearts of the just, as He is in his holy temple. At the same time, it means that those who pray should desire the one they invoke to dwell in them.
“Who art in heaven” does not refer to a place but to God’s majesty and his presence in the hearts of those that love Him. Heaven, the Father’s house, is the true homeland toward which we are heading and to which, already, we belong.
When we have placed ourselves in the presence of God our Father to adore and to love and to bless him – rtruly not just with rote words — the Holy Spirit stirs up in our hearts seven petitions, seven blessings. The first three, more theological, draw us toward the glory of the Father; the last four, as ways toward him, commend our human sinfulness to his grace.
The first series of petitions carries us toward him, for his own sake: thy name, thy kingdom, thy will! Hallowed be thy name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done ,It is characteristic of love to think first of the one whom we love. In none of the three petitions do we mention ourselves; . Instead, these words draw us to Him. They speak of His role, His place, and His desire to do that which is right for all mankind. These three supplications were already answered in the saving sacrifice of Christ, but they are directed in hope toward their final fulfillment, for God is not yet all in all.
The second series of petitions unfolds with the same movement that draws down upon itself the eyes of the Father of mercies and the God of Love. They go up from us and concern us from this very moment, in our present world: “give us… forgive us… lead us not… deliver us.…” The fourth and fifth petitions concern our life as such—to be fed and to be healed of sin; the last two concern our battle for the victory of life—that battle for which prayer is intended.
In the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come” refers primarily to the final coming of the reign of God through Christ’s return. But, far from distracting the Church from her mission in this present world, this desire commits her to it all the more strongly. Since Pentecost, the coming of that Reign of God is the work of the Spirit of the Lord who “complete[s] his work on earth and brings us the fullness of grace.”
This petition is taken up and granted in the prayer of Jesus which is present and effective in the Eucharist; it bears its fruit in new life in keeping with the Beatitudes
“Give us”: The trust of children who look to their Father for everything is beautiful. “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” He gives to all the living “their food in due season.” Jesus teaches us this petition, because it glorifies our Father by acknowledging how good he is, beyond all goodness.
Our bread”: The Father who gives us life cannot but give us the nourishment life requires—all appropriate goods and blessings, both material and spiritual. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus insists on the filial trust that cooperates with our Father’s providence. He is not inviting us to idleness waiting for God to give us our Bread but He wants to relieve us from nagging worry and preoccupation about it. God WILL provide.
But the presence of those who hunger because they lack bread opens up another profound meaning of this petition. The drama of hunger in the world calls Christians who pray sincerely to exercise responsibility toward their brethren, both in their personal behavior and in their solidarity with the human family. This petition of the Lord’s Prayer cannot be isolated from the parables of the poor man Lazarus and of the Last Judgment when we are judged on the kindness of our life toward each other.
This next petition is astonishing. If it consisted only of the first phrase, “And forgive us our trespasses,” it might have been included, implicitly, in the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, since Christ’s sacrifice is “that sins may be forgiven.” But, according to the second phrase, our petition will not be heard unless we have first met a strict requirement. Our petition looks to the future, but our response must come first, for the two parts are joined by the single word “as.” We forgive us our trespasses…
With bold confidence, we began praying to our Father. In begging him that his name be hallowed, we were in fact asking him that we ourselves might be always made more holy. But though we are clothed with the baptismal garment, we do not cease to sin, to turn away from God. Now, in this new petition, we return to him like the prodigal son and, like the tax collector, recognize that we are sinners before him. Our petition begins with a “confession” of our wretchedness and his mercy. Our hope is firm because, in his Son, “we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
We find the signs of his forgiveness in the sacraments of his Church. Now—and this is daunting—this outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see. (Repeat) In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father’s merciful love; but in confessing our sins, our hearts are opened to his grace.
This petition is so important that it is the only one to which the Lord returns and which he develops explicitly in the Sermon on the Mount. This crucial requirement of the covenant mystery is impossible for man. But “with God all things are possible.”
…as we forgive those who trespass against us
This “as” is not unique in Jesus’ teaching: He said: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”; He also said: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful”; He ALSO said: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
It is impossible to keep the Lord’s commandment by trying to imitate the divine model from outside; there has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God. That we display in our lives. Only the Spirit by whom we live can make “ours” the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. Then the unity of forgiveness becomes possible and we find ourselves “forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave” us.
“ Lead us not into temptation” implies a decision of the heart: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…. No one can serve two masters.” Or “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” In this assent to the Holy Spirit the Father gives us strength. We need to believe the words of Holy Mother Church when she wrote “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, so that you may be able to endure it.”
“ But deliver us from evil” The last petition to our Father is also included in Jesus’ prayer: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” It touches each of us personally, but it is always “we” who pray, in communion with the whole Church, for the deliverance of the whole human family. The Lord’s Prayer continually opens us to the range of God’s economy of salvation. Our interdependence in the drama of sin and death is turned into solidarity in the Body of Christ, the “communion of saints” as we know it.
So then why all of this on the Lord’s prayer, First, because if we truly wish to deepen our relationship with Christ this Advent, we need to center ourselves in prayer. We need to make prayer a living part of our daily life. A Christian life cannot be fully realized until we have centered ourselves in prayer and then live out that life in prayer. Secondly, this beautiful prayer, taught to us, by Jesus Christ, calls us to do the one thing that is necessary for Him to dwell within us in a truly full way. You know what it is. It’s the hardest thing for all of us to do: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
That. My friends, is the action of our lives that dictates how deeply we want the Spirit of God within us. Do we forgive? Can we forgive? Can we truly ease our minds and hearts to realize that not to forgive is to allow into our lives an ugly beast that not only controls our life but prevents us from knowing the real peace that comes from the true presence of Christ within us.
PART 3 – THE ULTIMATE EXPRESSION OF HIS LOVE
Yes it was Jesus’ death upon the cross that was the ultimate expression of His love for us and the ultimate expression of His love. It was that death and that resurrection that brought each of us eternal life. That is a gift that has no price.
But Jesus, as he did throughout his life, also gave us so much more. And one of those gifts is the one that can bring the personal Jesus alive within us. It is perhaps one of His greatest gifts. Yet, it comes unadorned. Is quite plain looking in appearance and has few physical attributes that would appeal to most of us.
Yet it is the gift that truly never stops giving. It is the gift that promises us personal union, peace and ultimate protection. It is, of course, the gift of the Holy Eucharist. In seminary, we were taught that the Eucharist is The Sum and The Substance of Our Faith. Think about that because it really is,
This afternoon, we have looked deeply at the use of prayer to deepen our relationship with the personal Jesus; we have explored the need to forgive as He forgave us in order to know Him truly in our lives; we have explored the Lord’s Prayer in terms of what it means and how it, when thought about it and prayed reverently, can bring us a deeper reflection of God the Father in our life and we come to the most intimate gift of all – union and oneness with His body and blood. How fortunate we are as Catholics to have this gift passed down for more than 2,014 years.
This intimacy is so unique because of its strength and what it can mean for our life. This IS Jesus Christ within us. Physically within us. Have you ever thought about the fact that each of us becomes a tabernacle when we leave Church ? We carry the true Christ in our bodies. It should be revered as much as it is when it reposed within the tabernacle on the altar.
Think about that. Think about what would happen if each of us decided to attend Mass on a daily basis or even 3-4 times a week. Each time we came to Mass, we received the Eucharist and walked out of here a living temple.
Would any one of us blaspheme in Church? Would any of us gossip in Church? Would any of us hurt another in Church? Of course not!
But you know where I am going next. We do that, don’t we? We live Church with Christ within us and we act as if it nothing happened., I sometimes wonder if we just don’t take this gift as a matter of fact. Perhaps we have come to jaded, too blasé about what it is.
What it is, IS the power to transform. It is a mingling of His Body and Blood with us. There is nothing more intimate in human nature. In that intimacy, each of us becomes one with God. Think about it. One with God. What does that mean in terms of all the hardships and joys of life? What does that mean in terms of how we face life? What does that mean when adversity befalls us? What does that mean when we feel lonely? What does that mean when we feel that there is no way out?
The answer is there. There is ALWAYS God, And there is God WITHIN US when we receive Holy Eucharist. With God, there is nothing that is impossible. Yes, it is true that God sometimes does not answer our prayers the way we want, Sometimes tragedy hits us and we wonder where is that loving God?
But no matter the joy, the sadness, the happenings of life, we have the opportunity to call on the greatest strength the world knows – The Presence of God. Why do we Catholics forget this? Why do sometimes let our faith grow fallow? If our children fall away from the Church, why aren’t we reminding them of the gift of the Eucharist? If our fellow Catholics who have fallen away talk to us about not needing the Church to worship God, do we talk about Church as the place where they can receive the greatest gift that has ever been given? Do we talk to them about the gift of having God within in? Yes, it is our obligation to present this to others. It is, as I said, the Sum and the Substance of our faith. It is such a gift that we should want to share it.
Christ Above Us, Christ Around Us, Christ Within Us. How full the circle. How complete the promise.
Here you are. Here you are today. Here is your chance to make the presence of God within you even more meaningful and even more pronounced. He waits for you to answer that call. I pray that you answer that call.
The Pharisees are mentioned frequently in the Gospels. They played a significant role in the public life of Jesus. What we know of them leads us to have a very negative opinion of them. We see them as legalistic hypocrites, blind to Jesus and his message. We see them becoming increasingly hostile to Jesus, and eventually seeking to destroy him. They are often presented as questioning Jesus, trying to provoke a response that will discredit him.
Specifically, in today’s Gospel, the Pharisees propose a dilemma designed to get Jesus into trouble, no matter which alternative he chooses. If Jesus said it was lawful to pay the tax, he would be in trouble with the Jewish people. If he said the tax should not be paid, he would be in trouble with the Roman authorities. As he often did, Jesus responded with a question. In doing so, he escaped the dilemma and raised the issue to a new level.
Although he was often in conflict with the Pharisees, Jesus recognized their role as teachers in Israel. He told people, “Do as they say; not as they do!” The Jewish people were people of the law as handed down by Moses. The Pharisees were the interpreters and guardians of the law. In fact, it was to their credit that they were the ones largely responsible for sustaining fidelity to the Law of Moses in Israel.
Jesus was sharply critical of the religion of the Pharisees. They often turned life-giving principles into regulations that suffocated and condemned. Over time, the great principles of the Law were broken down into literally thousands of rules and regulations. The Pharisees believed salvation was attained through scrupulous observance of those rules and regulations.
The Pharisees thought they knew exactly what God wanted of them. When Jesus told them they didn’t have it right, they simply refused to believe him. In fact, they turned strongly against him and his message. The Pharisees were dedicated legalists. For them, religion consisted in careful observance of every detail of the Law. At the same time, they were deeply religious in the sense of being desperately earnest about the practice of religion; but religion as they understood it.
There is a danger in being a legalist in our faith. The danger is as obvious as the Pharisees. There is a trap because some see themselves as so perfect in the following of our Church’s teachings that they forget that the words of Jesus Christ were directed at living a Christ centered life. I have seen this so many times in my ministry that I could weep. The overly pious Catholic, the sanctimonious Catholic, the Catholic that struts about their faith but when the rubber hits the road, there is little that shows in their living of a Christ centered life.
Much of the behavior of the Pharisees was self-serving. Deeds were performed to be seen and admired. Reflection on their behavior has resulted in the term “Pharisee” becoming a synonym for “hypocrite.” The problem of the Pharisees was not so much a lack of faith, as a lack of humility, humility that would allow them to admit they could be wrong. They had lost the capacity for self-criticism. Lack of humility is often accompanied by stubbornness. Thus, the Pharisees became fixed in their opposition to Jesus, which then became stronger and stronger.
Having said all that about the Pharisees, I still like to think of them as affording us a good example in a negative way. We must be careful not to out-Pharisee the Pharisees, i.e., not to think of ourselves as incapable of making the same mistakes they did. We can learn from them not to think we understand so perfectly what God wants of us that we never have to make any adjustment in our thinking. To put it a bit differently, the valuable lesson we can learn from the Pharisees is that they needed to change their minds, to be converted. There is a sense in which we, too, need to be converted, i.e., converted in the sense of being continuously in a process of turning away from sin, and turning to the Lord.
From time to time, the Gospels describe Jesus as challenging the Pharisees in very strong language. It helps to remember Jesus also found it necessary to challenge his close followers. We can find 17 places in the Gospels when Jesus asked his disciples: “Are you still without understanding?” It is not that the disciples were dull or of low intelligence. The real challenge for Jesus is not one of a lack of intelligence among his disciples, but for them to be willing to give up an old vision, and accept a new one. The challenge Jesus presents to anyone who wants to be his follower is not so much a matter of understanding, as a matter of radical faith, and profound trust in Jesus as Son of God, and our Savior.
I think that applies to all of us in the faith community of San Juan Bautista. It’s not a question of how often we look the part of the perfect Catholic Christian. It really is a question of how often we stand in the footsteps of Jesus. As my children were growing and there were arguments, I would ask : “ What would you do if Jesus were standing here?” We need to ask ourselves the same question every day. Do the thoughts of our minds, the words from our lips, the actions from our hands honor and imitate Jesus Christ. If the answer is “no,” then we know that we are more like a Pharisee than a follower of Christ. Pray God that each of us has the wisdom, the maturity and the true spirit to be an imitator of Christ.
I would not be surprised if there is some confusion in hearing this Gospel this morning. On its face, it is confusing. After all, the chief priests seemed to give the right answer but they are rebuked by Jesus.
The parable was a clear rebuke against the actions of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, as well as a significant portion of the people of God who had adamantly refused to believe and listen to Christ the Lord.
The vineyard owner represented God, the Father and Creator of the entire universe. And thus, the vineyard itself represented the creation, the universe, our world. Meanwhile, the vineyard tenants referred to mankind, who had been entrusted with the care and stewardship of the world.
But mankind sinned and rebelled against the will of God, and they refused to listen to Him and they also refused to follow and obey His will. The ones whom the owner had sent to remind the tenants and to get them to honor their work contract were none other than the prophets, the messengers and the numerous servants which the Lord had sent to His people, including Isaiah, Elijah and many others, to lead them and to guide them into the path of righteousness.
However, as the parable told us, the tenants refused to budge, and they persecuted and killed the servants sent by the master of the vineyard, the same that had happened to the many prophets which God had sent to His people.
The son of the owner sent to the tenant refers to none other than Jesus Himself, and He was indeed speaking of what would eventually happen to Him, that he would be betrayed by His own people, he would be punished and condemned for sins and problems that He did not commit, and he would die a most shameful and painful death on the cross, just as the tenants plotted against the son to gain the ownership of the vineyard.
They refused to listen to the Lord and follow Him because of the evil in their hearts, the pride that obscured the breadth of their wisdom and discerning ability, and the desire for fame and worldly glory — so they were blinded and deafened against the truth revealed by God through Jesus. Therefore, they sinned very greatly against God, and they deserved hellfire, for they did not just condemn themselves, but they also misled countless others into damnation with them.
So where does that leave us. What message are we supposed to carry out of here today? Here is the lead in to the message. Each of us is called to do a self-introspect on our own lives, on our every deeds and actions, and on our lives as a whole, to see whether we have been like the evil tenants in our actions –succumbing to our own personal desire and human weaknesses, succumbing to the temptations of sin and Satan instead of listening to God as we should have.
Allow me the courtesy of reflecting back to you the observations of over three decades in ministry – of serving in five dioceses in North America and seven different parishes.
I have seen people and clergy cleanly divide into two groups. The first are like the tenants of the vineyard. They are filled with pride and a sense of entitlement. They belong to a group that says all I have is mine. I made it, I will give to charity only that which does not affect me. They are filled with a sense of self-worth and pride that allows them to easily judge others. They are quick of tongue in their one sentence put downs of those who do not agree with them. They are quick to sow discord by continuing to mumble and grumble about the things that don’t agree with them. Be careful around those who launch into lengthy discourses about what is right and wrong. Watch for those who act sanctimoniously when they are in Church but their lives betray their professed sanctity. How do you know them or how do you know whether you fall into that group? Listen to them. Listen to their words and watch them. Those are the ones of whom Jesus said:” Therefore I say to you the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
Then there is the other group. Those who realize they are called to a different standard — that they are called to be holy. Called to be holy. Now what could that mean? It’s simple but we don’t think of it very much. Each of us is called to a personal holiness. A personal holiness that says not only do I acknowledge the words of Jesus Christ but I will live the words of Jesus Christ in all that I do and say. It’s similar to the three crosses we make before we hear the holy words of Jesus: “May the words of the Gospel be on my mind, my lips and in my heart.” It’s the realization that all that we do during our day should be bringing glory to God. It’s the prayer that I say every morning: “May the thoughts from my mind, the actions from my hands and the words that I speak bring you glory, O Lord,” And I have seen so many people like that in my life. People who quietly, in their own way, bring glory to God by the way they act, they speak and in the peacefulness of their heart and mind. People who understand the meaning of being a brother’s keeper. Because we are our brother’s keeper and let no one of us forget that. As Catholic Christians, we must be people who understand that we are called to care for one another and to minister to one another, there should not be one among us — in this Church – who should not know the love of others. If thre is one among us who leaves this Church feeling unloved and unsupported then we have failed as a Christian community. The Stephen Ministry was founded with that premise – to reach out and to quietly show the love of God—through our actions – and our caring. Not through pious sounding phrases, not through posturing but through quiet acts of caring and loving. Our Panamanian sisters and brothers who go out twice a month on their mission to the poor is another example.
Now let me close by giving you a vivid example of the type of people in that group that will never be rejected by God. I met them for the first time Friday night at a neighbor’s son’s birthday party. Their names are Nathan and Rebecca. They live in Caldera and are neighbors of Tommy and Saran Kline. They are a young couple in their early thirties with four boys – the oldest of whom is 9. They are a North American couple. They came here over two years ago to visit Rebecca’s parents who live in Panama, When Nathan and Rebecca came, they saw the poverty around them. When they returned home, they decided to return to Panama and start a home orphanage here in Panama for children with special needs. For the last 18 months, they have been working their way through the Panamanian government and hopefully within a year they will open their orphan home for special needs children. These are not Mormons doing a mission, nor Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking to convert, they are simply a young couple, who quietly and with no personal sanctimony have decided that they will live the words of the Gospel by dedicating their lives to the special needs of those children who have nothing. That, my friends, is an example of personal holiness. That’s an example of the cornerstone upon which the Church of Christ is built. Every single day, we should be asking ourselves: am I following a path of personal holiness? Every single day.
Pray God that all of us would have the dedication and courage that Nathan and Rebecca do. Pray God that you lead each of us to find our path to personal holiness.
Recently, I read an amusing anecdote that I think has a lot to do with the Gospel messages of today.
A hermit was meditating by a river when a young man interrupted him. “Master, I wish to become your disciple,” said the man. “Why?” replied the hermit. The young man thought for a moment and said: “Because I want to find God.” The master jumped up, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, dragged him into the river, and plunged his head under water. After holding him there for a minute, with him kicking and struggling to free himself, the master finally pulled him up out of the river. The young man coughed up water and gasped to get his breath. When he eventually quieted down, the master spoke. “Tell me, what you wanted most of all when you were under water.” “Air!” answered the man. “Very well,” said the master. “Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air.”
The three parables in today’s Gospel all have the same message but each is different in how it approaches the message. And it is that central message that each of us has to find himself or herself. The message is really a question: How much do we want God?
The first two parables using the images of hidden treasure and a pearl of great price talk of two individuals who sell everything else to possess something precious. What many do not realize is that the treasure buried in the field legally belongs to the owner of the field and therefore the person who finds it sells everything and purchases the land in order to become its owner In this parable the finder does not tell the owner of his discovery but purchases the land to make it legal – (sounds like insider trading to me!.) Nevertheless, Jesus does not pass judgment on his actions but rather the pursuit.
The second parable is slightly different. A businessman looks for fine pearls. When he finds the one he wants, he sells everything else he has in order to acquire this precious pearl. The man was on the lookout for the “pearl of great price”. He knows it must exist somewhere and he uses all his energies to find it. Both parables tell us of a person who actually goes beyond all ordinary possibilities to obtain an object of great value. This shows how valuable and precious the kingdom of heaven is. The idea obviously is that when one really discovers Jesus, his/her vision of life changes.
This was Paul’s experience as he tells the Philippian community: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.”
This brings us to the third parable today of the net thrown into the sea and this story focuses on the ultimate judgment. Here Jesus compares the church to a fishing net which when thrown into the lake collect all sorts of fish. The net could not and does not discriminate. It was left to the fishermen to do the dividing and the separating process. While the first and second parables speak of the total commitment and dedication which are the ideal of every follower of Christ, this third parable helps to put our two feet firmly back on the ground. It reflects the same emphasis that the interpretation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds made.
The point is that in the kingdom of heaven there will be accountability. This parable reminds us that the Church and even the Kingdom in the process of its evolution is full of all kinds of people. Our Church is a Church of saints and sinners, the good and the bad. Those who have heard the teachings of Jesus and put them into practice will enter the kingdom of heaven and those who do not will be excluded. The judgment is not arbitrary and rests ultimately on the response of the one who has heard the message of Jesus.
This balancing act is the task of each one of us who have been instructed in the kingdom of heaven. Judgment is for later. Right now, it is for us to use the time given to us to go in search of the treasure and the pearl of great price, of the gift to be able to identify, with Jesus, the really true, the good and the beautiful, and to help others too in the same search. So once again, as we should do, we need to engage in some self-reflection and some thoughts turned inward. Are we in search of Jesus Christ? Do we hold the gift of Jesus in our lives as the most important thing we have? What would we do if we are confronted with the option of giving up all we have to obtain eternal life with Christ? How much of our daily life is centered on Jesus Christ? Is He really the focus of our thoughts and actions each day? Even in this small community of English speaking people in Panama, can we tell of each other’s love of Christ in our interactions? Do we visibly show that? When we extend an arm to help one another, is it the arm of Christ or the arm of obligation? Can we allow our eyes to be the true reflection of our so? When we say “Good Morning” or “Hello”, is it genuine or does it mask a feeling that is negative?
Shortly, we will approach the Eucharistic table to celebrate a sacrificial event. We express our faith in Jesus who is our pearl of great price. Jesus is worth everything to us and allowing ourselves to be united to him in communion is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. Let’s not forget those words – united to him in communion. We carry forward from this Church the very essence of Jesus Christ – his body and blood. What do we do with that when we leave? How much of our life, this day, honors this incredible act? We should be using that moment of unity with him as a stepping stone to build His kingdom searching relentlessly and seeking his presence in everything we do. The reward is something precious and something which cannot be lost at any time .Yes, we are called to face obstacles but we are called to be steadfast in the ways in which we overcome those challenges and to stay focused on Christ. Yes, living a Christian life in today’s world can be difficult at times. I don’t know about you but sometimes I feel as if I am wearing a hair sheet. That shirt scratches me and reminds me that my actions and my words call me to a higher standard of life and to a higher vision. The continual seeking of God in our lives and guiding our actions every day does not come easily to us. It is not second nature. It is a deliberate, ongoing process that holds, as its price the gift of eternal life. Finally, it is the choice which God has made for us as he has chosen us and formed us in his own image and has planned a plan for us. We know what the answer to his message should be. Pray God that we can to the divine call given to us and live this kingdom to the full.
Today’s Gospel is one of the more familiar Gospels for all of us. This parable about the sower of seeds is the first of seven parables that Matthew placed in the center of his gospel. Each of the parables adds a specific dimension to the reality that Matthew is experiencing: although there are disciples who have begun to believe in him, Jesus is still experiencing much rejection among the people. You know, we sort of have been led to believe that Jesus’ public ministry – until His final days – was a walk in the park. It simply wasn’t so. While the Pharisees had issues with him from the beginning, there were countless Jews who did not understand his message nor had no time for it.
In the parable, the sower goes out and sows a great amount of seed. For various reasons much of the seed does not come to fruition. However, some of the seed that fell on rich soil produces an extraordinary amount of fruit.
Matthew concludes this section by having Jesus amplify the parable of the sower by transforming the meaning of the seed from the word which initiates life in the kingdom, to the person who is called to life in the kingdom. Some people hear the word without understanding its deeper meaning; some receive it, but fall away when tribulation comes; some hear it, but worldly anxiety and greed choke off the life it gives; some hear the word, understand it, and bear an extraordinary amount of fruit.
That’s quite a life’s lesson for us, isn’t it? How many of us have gone through life following one stage or another of the seeds in today’s parable?
The Divine Sower has spread the seed abundantly throughout the world. But there must be a lot of barren ground and barren hearts when we look at the world today. The atrocities that are being committed every day – some of them in the name of God – seem to multiply every day. All we need to do is read the headlines and it’s enough to not just shake you in your boots but shake your heart as well. What’s happened to the world that seemed to exist just 40 or 50 years ago?
So we can sit in our pews, shake our heads and say that the word of God has not taken root. What a shame! What a travesty! But don’t get too complacent. Because each of us, in our own way, has betrayed the seed of life that have been given to us so generously. Perhaps we are not the barren ground and perhaps the seed of life eternal has planted some roots. It’s a question of how deep those roots go in our life.
What happens when it comes to making sacrifices for our faith? What happens when the lures of today’s materialistic life take over? What happens when the delight of riches begins to choke our hearts? What happens when we puff up our chests as we stride around the beautiful home that we have or we count the size of our 401k or our stock portfolios? Is it done with total gratitude to God for giving it to us? Or do our hearts swell with pride at how gifted we were or are? How many of us will give up part of what we have for others. Remember the model of St. Francis? The son of a wealthy man who had the world at his fingertips and, one night, he gives it all up. He walks naked through the street declaring that all he is what the Lord gave him. He spends his life, a simple man, extoling the virtues of Christ and bringing thousands to Christ – just as he does even today. But if we do not get that all that we have is a gift from God. If we do not get the fact that what we have should not just be used for only our own pleasure but to help others, we are not getting it. Folks, I don’t think most people do get it. I don’t care if someone comes to Mass every day, I don’t care if you say the rosary three times a day, if we are not living the life of Christ by caring about and by reaching out to those that have less, to those who are in need, then we are just like the seed which fell on rocky ground because our faith has no deep roots in their lives. The sacramentals that the Church gives us – the rosary, novenas, adoration, vigils — those are there to help strengthen our faith. The Living Body and Blood of Christ offered to us daily is ours to take and to be transformed. To be transformed. To stop and say “What am I doing for Christ today? To go to bed at night and ask “What did I do for Christ today? Every day. Every night. Every breath. If not, are we not like those that accepted the faith and it took root in them, but later on, “the cares of the world and the delight in riches chokes the word and it proves unfruitful,”— these are our Lord’s own words.
The last class of Christians is like the seed sown on good soil. They not only accept Christ and his teaching, but they live up to it, and, come what may, they are faithful to it. They take it to their hearts and they live it every day. These will produce fruit and will earn for themselves the eternal happiness promised to us..
Each one of us can look into his or her own conscience today and discover to which class he or she belongs. Are some of us perhaps, like the seed that fell on the rocky ground? When Christianity makes no very difficult demand we are all for it, but when it demands mortification, the curbing of passion, real sacrifices for our neighbor, do we forget our Christian calling then and ignore its precepts? And how does our type of Christianity stand up to the temptations of the world—the desire to get all the enjoyment we can out of this life, licit or illicit, breaking God’s commandments weekly or maybe daily? Are we chasing after wealth and power, using all our energies to rise in the world to be above our neighbor by fair or foul means? If the above are our aims in life, our Christianity has been or is being choked out of us.
You know, I pray every day that the Lord gives me enough years to continue to preach His Word and His Gospel. I pray to have the years to preach not because I am special. I am not. It’s not because I am deeply spiritual. I am not. But it is because my heart burns with the words of Christ. My call to ordination was shaped by the Franciscans 40 years ago and by the words and actions of St. Francis. I was in The Third Order of St. Francis when I was 14 years old. What did I learn? What were the seeds that were sown in my path? This – this world and all that we have – are nothing compared to the glory that God has stored up for us. There is a life that awaits us that defies any description. There is an all abundant love that surrounds us and is greater than any of us will ever know in our mortal life. There is a call – there is a call – that is made to each of us by the Divine Sower – to follow him, not just in our words but in the daily deeds of our life. The question is do we have the wisdom and the strength to do that?