Sunday, November 18, 2018

What Will Last

A few months ago, I took a little vacation time. Nature has always been one of the primary ways that I feel a sense of God’s presence, and so I decided to head out west to visit a few national parks that had long been on my wish list. I always find that I gain a little perspective when I spend some time out among the ancient things of nature – the mountains, the desert, the wide-open sky. Our lives are full of so many changing realities; there is a sense of comfort and stability that comes from being in the midst of things that have been around for eons. 

However, that perception – of permanence, stability – is really an illusion. Any geologist can tell you that the earth is constantly changing, shaped by both tectonic forces below and the elements above. Any astronomer can tell you that the stars in the night sky have lifespans, much longer than our own but nonetheless finite. The natural things of the world around us may seem permanent, but they are anything but. All that we see around us is ultimately transitory, created things which are passing away.

Our readings for this Sunday remind us of this fact if we had forgotten it. In this 33rd week of Ordinary Time, the second to last week of our liturgical year, our lectionary has taken an apocalyptic turn. The prophet Daniel speaks about a time of great trial and distress which ends with the resurrection of those who are dead, some to eternal life and some to “everlasting horror and disgrace.” In the Letter to the Hebrews, we hear how all things have been made subject to Jesus the High Priest, who at the right hand of God is bringing all of his enemies under his rule. Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples not to be caught off guard by the suddenness of what will happen – the Son of Man returning in glory to judge all things.

Gustave Doré, The Triumph of Christianity Over Paganism [detail] (c. 1868)

The passage we hear from the Gospel of Mark is actually the end of a longer passage in which Jesus describes how the end times will be marked by the dissolution of many of the things that seem to give order and structure to this reality: nations will rise up against up each other, kingdoms will fall, families will be split apart, even the earth itself will quake and become barren. Rather than describe particular occurrences that we can track as predictions, the point that Jesus is making is how everything that seems stable and permanent will be overturned. No doubt this is frightening, both for us and for Jesus’s listeners. What exactly are we to make of this dire prophecy? Where is the “Good News”?

Believe it or not, these readings are fundamentally readings about hope. At the end of the liturgical year – and then, immediately following, in the first few weeks of Advent – our readings are apocalyptic, not because the Church wants to frighten us but because it wants to remind us of what ultimately will last. We tend to think of that word, “apocalypse,” as the catastrophic end of all things. But that’s not really what the word means in Greek. “Apocalypse” is not mass destruction but rather is closer to our word “revelation.” It denotes a disclosure, a tearing away of the veil so that what truly is can be fully seen. For the Christian mindset, the Apocalypse is not the end of all things the fulfillment of all things – the true revealing of what actually and permanently is.

And what is it, in the end, that is the most fundamental reality? If nations and kingdoms will pass away, if families and relationships are to be upset and disrupted, if even the earth and sea and sky are going to pass away, what ultimately will last? Jesus says it plainly – the Son of Man, that is, he himself. In the Gospels, Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man” whenever he intends to describe his role as the One sent by God as our Savior and Redeemer, the One who must suffer and be rejected, even to the point of death, but who in rising again will be given all power and authority in heaven and on earth. In the end, all of the other aspects of creation will be overturned, not for the sake of destruction but for the sake of revealing that in the end Christ alone will remain.

As I said, that is a message of hope. Why? Because we know intuitively that this world and this life are not permanent; at times, we are reminded of that fact in very sudden, very painful ways. Many of you know that this past week we suffered a loss here in our own parish community. One of our students, Connor Kordsmeier, who was active and among us just a week ago, passed away after a sudden illness. That sense of loss – and especially that sense of disruption, of being reminded so violently of the impermanence of this reality – can be really disorienting. It can shake our faith. What we need in these moments is the virtue of hope. Faith is the belief in things that we cannot yet see, but hope is the certain expectation of receiving those things that we believe in.

Whenever we suffer loss – whether it is the passing of a family or a friend, or something lesser, like a disappointment, a trial, a grievance, an expectation unfulfilled – we are reminded that this reality is not permanent, not lasting, but rather is the anticipation of a new reality that will one day be completely revealed. And at the center of that reality is Jesus, the only One who truly lasts, the only One who fulfills our desire for stability and permanence. When we renew our hope in the Son of Man – the One who has been given all power and authority, the One who will come again in glory – then we can bear with perseverance all of the sorrows and disappointments of this world, all of the disruptions and instabilities of this life, because we remember that nothing in the end will last that is not a part of Christ.

Let me give you just three quick ways that we can learn to place our hope in Christ, not in the world, on a daily basis. 
  • First, begin each day with a short prayer, offering to God everything that may happen to you that day – all of your experiences, all of the things you will do, all of your joys and all of your sorrows. When we do this, even the seemingly routine, mundane parts of our daily lives become something imbued with spiritual meaning.
  • Second, make sure you are regularly receiving the sacrament of confession. We are all sinners, but the key to growing in our spiritual life is not to rely upon our efforts to become better but to turn to the sacrament of God’s mercy and healing, whenever we may need it.
  • Third, try to keep in mind your own death every day. That may sound morbid, but for the Christian it shouldn’t be. Death, after all, is meeting God, and if we are living the way we should be, that should be a joy and not something to fear. St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Every action of yours, every thought, should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out. Death would have no great terrors for you if you had a quiet conscience… Then why not keep clear of sin instead of running away from death? If you aren’t fit to face death today, it’s very unlikely you will be tomorrow…” 
St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1634)

Friends, in these days, there are a lot of reminders of our own impermanence, from the passing of a member of our community to the fading of the natural world around us. We can let such reminders become a cause for fear or disturbance, or we can see them as an opportunity to place our trust in the only One who will truly last. Jesus, the Son of Man, will return for each of us, either in glory at the end of time, or when we see him face to face at the close of our lives. Let us strive anew to find comfort and stability and hope in him, not in the changing things of this passing world. As we prepare to encounter him in this Eucharist once again, may its graces help us to strive to be ready at all times to encounter him face to face, so that when we do it is not with fear, but with faith, expectation, and joy.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Strange Accounting

When I was growing up, my uncle helped teach me the value of money. He would put a coin in the palm of his hand so that when I reached out to shake it, I would find myself a few cents richer. Sometimes it was a couple dimes, sometimes a quarter. I soon began to learn the denominations of currency – a quarter is worth more than a dime, a dime more than a nickel, etc. Nowadays I myself am an uncle, but it’s a different era, and I’m not sure this same game would work with my nephew. He’s more likely to play with a credit card than with coins. 

Learning the value of money is an important life skill for all of us. Some lessons we learn at a young age: a whole stack of green bills with the face of George Washington are worth less than a single green bill with the face of Benjamin Franklin. Other lessons require more maturity: a compound interest rate is much different than a simple interest rate. Good teachers, and good examples, go a long way in helping us understand the things of this world.

Though he owned little to nothing himself, Jesus clearly understood the importance of money. He talks about it a lot in the Gospels; but he does so often in surprising ways. There’s the parable of the generous landowner, for example, who pays those who had worked for only an hour in his vineyard the same full daily wage as those who had labored all day. That’s kind of strange. In another place, he says that for the one who has, more will be given, and that the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. Again, that doesn’t make a lot of sense according to our thinking about money.

Today’s Gospel provides another example of Jesus’s strange way of accounting. He and his disciples observe the poor widow at the treasury who puts in two coins worth a few cents. And yet, he says that she has contributed more than anyone else. What? This seems demonstrably false. The scribes have contributed much larger sums, certainly amounts larger than a few cents. How could one possibly say that the widow has contributed more than the rest? 

Of course, we know what Jesus is referring to – there is a kind of accounting that is much more important than mere dollars and cents. For example, one can be generous in two ways. The first is by giving a lot because one has a lot. A philanthropist may make a generous donation to a foundation or a university; but the value of his gift, while a lot in terms of dollars and cents, is tempered in the measure of generosity, since it is one he can well afford. Compare that kind of giving to that of a family of modest means who helps another family to pay its medical expenses, or who sponsors a child to go to Catholic school, or who contributes to the annual church campaign. True generosity is to give more than what one can – or, put another way, to give even when one cannot really afford to do so.

Jesus’s example of the poor widow in the Gospel is intended to remind us that God sees the value of our giving not so much in terms of dollars and cents, but according to what we have been given. As we heard a few weeks ago, riches can be an impediment to the kingdom of God: it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. We all should learn the value of money – but not as an end in itself but rather as a means to provide for those for whom we are responsible, including the poor and needy. The truly generous person remembers that every gift has its origin in God, and so our gifts are not truly our own, but only entrusted to us to be used for his purposes. 

The Widow's Mite (1890) by William Teulon Blandford Fletcher

Today’s Gospel clearly has implications for how we view money and possessions, but we might consider what else it can teach us about how we “spend” things that we “possess”. If the widow’s coins might be thought of not as currency, but as grace – if we think in terms of a generosity of spirit, rather than of purse – what might we learn?

Think about all of the spiritual things we know that our world needs more of – indeed, that we ourselves need more of: humility, patience, forgiveness, honesty, empathy, charity of spirit, love. We tend to operate as if we can give or show these spiritual gifts to others only when we have them in abundance ourselves. But remember that, in Jesus’s way of accounting, true generosity is to give even when we do not have much to give – to give not from abundance but from our own poverty. The Temple scribes gave because they wanted honor from others; they sought to use their resources to win favor, both of God and of other people. But spiritual gifts are like material ones: they have their origin in God, not in us. The widow in the Gospel trusted that God would provide for what she did not have.

What if we did the same? What if we sought to be patient even when we are running low on patience, or if we sought to express concern and consolation to another even we are feeling anxious ourselves? What if we sought to be empathetic even when we find ourselves feeling critical, or to forgive even if we don’t feel very forgiving? What if we sought to embrace Jesus’s strange way of accounting – believing that God rewards those who give from their own poverty, and that he cannot be outdone in generosity?

Friends, we each need good teachers and good examples of how to regard the things of this world. But we need the same for the qualities of the spirit as well, and we can be those teachers, those examples to a world so clearly in need of spiritual gifts. Jesus reminds us today that the most important thing we possess is our identity in him and the grace we have received from being in relationship with him. God’s way of accounting may seem strange to us, but that is because it is rooted in his goodness and in his compassion – he can give us the power to show generosity if we first recognize how he has been generous to us. May the Eucharist we will receive today prompt us to rely upon him and to seek always to be giving, like the widow in the Gospel, especially when we feel we have little to give. Whether it is material resources, or those spiritual gifts that we have been given, it is from God that we have received, and from him that we will receive again.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Rules of the Road

Rules are a necessary part of life. As much as we may not like the idea of them, we all know implicitly that we need them. I realized this in a very concrete way when I visited South America about a decade ago. Immediately after getting off the plane, our group hopped in a taxi to get to our hotel. What followed was nothing short of a near-death experience. I quickly came to appreciate how many laws about driving we have here in the U.S., since I saw what it looked like – and what it felt like – to not have them at all. 

In the Gospel today, a scribe asks Jesus about his understanding of rules. He’s not interested in transportation though but in the rules that govern our relationship with God – what we call commandments. In the Jewish religion, there were 613 commandments – 365 commandments to not do something and 248 commandments to do something. With so many rules, it was a matter of discussion and debate about which were the most important. The scribe comes to Jesus to ask him how he sees things.

The scribe comes to Jesus because he understands him to be a teacher, perhaps a prophet, certainly someone that others followed and respected. But our Gospel writer St. Mark also wants us to see Jesus as someone greater than these human attributes. He wants us to understand Jesus as the one whom Mark has been slowly revealing him to be throughout his Gospel: namely, the Messiah of the Jewish people and, even more, God-in-the-Flesh. As we wait for Jesus to respond then, we understand that his response will not just be the opinion of another human being; we are about to hear God himself tell us what he values as the most important rule governing our relationship with him. Jesus is not just describing the commandment, he is the One who pronouncing it to us anew.

So, what does Jesus say? On the one hand, what he says is perfectly expected: “you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” This prayer is called the Shema, from the Book of Deuteronomy and which we heard in our first reading. It is at the very heart of the Jewish faith. As a good Jew, Jesus would have recited it every morning and every evening. It’s also the prayer that some Jews place on small scrolls outside the doorposts of their homes or even wear in bands on their heads and arms. For Jesus to be asked “What is the first commandment?” and to respond with the Shema is not in the least surprising.

What is surprising is that he quickly adds a second commandment. “To love your neighbor as yourself” is a commandment that comes from the Book of Leviticus, but in no way was it considered to be on the same level as the commandment to love God with your whole being. Jesus is at the same time affirming the core principle of the Jewish faith, while also updating it, intensifying it, re-contextualizing it in light of all that he has come to reveal. He shows that the love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably linked together, and that if we try to do one without the other, we will fail at both. If we try to love God without loving other people, we risk becoming fanatical and closed off from the needs of people in the real world around us. If we love other people without loving God, our love will devolve into relativistic sentiment, unable to truly know what is for another person’s good since we’ve lost sight of the Source of all good. It turns out that in order to do either one, we have to do both – to love God with our whole being, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

These two loves can seem very abstract, but believe it or not, each time we come to Mass, we have the opportunity to put into practice exactly those two things. The Mass, at its heart, is not about being uplifted in spirit, or hearing an informative or inspiring homily. Those things are good, but they are secondary to the act of worship that we make to God – as the Body of Christ, we offer worship through Jesus to the heavenly Father. If at no other time during our week, the Mass is our best opportunity to remember how the love of God should be at the very heart of who we are and all that we do.

The Mass also offers us the chance to deepen our love of others. We pray for those whom we know who are in need, we practice charity to those who are around us, we remember our beloved dead and we pray for them especially in this month of November. Perhaps more than anything, we pray for wisdom so that God can show us how he wants us to practice love of him and love of neighbor in concrete ways, in the situations and circumstances of our daily lives, according to the vocation to which he has called us or is calling us.

Friends, the commandments of God – and those of the Church as well – are not given to us to be oppressive and restrictive. Rather they are like rules of the road for our souls: they help us to be well that which God has created us to be. Each time we come to Mass we learn anew how to praise God in and through Jesus our Lord, and we learn how to let his love take root in us so that we can love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus doesn’t just command this of us – he comes to us in the Holy Eucharist to help us achieve it. Let us turn our minds and hearts toward our loving God, in praise of him, and in gratitude for the ways that he enables us to accomplish all that he has commanded.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Washed by Blood: All Saints' Day

Fra Angelico, Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven (c. 1430)

One of the things you learn at a university is how to begin to take personal responsibility. If you don’t have it already, college definitely teaches you – often via a “sink or swim” method – that you are responsible for yourself. You can wake up in time to go to class, or not. You can learn good study habits, or not. You can learn how to exist on something other than Ramen noodles, or not.

The sharp learning curve of the university experience can be a bit harsh, but it also can be a good introduction into how our culture tends to operate. After all, self-reliance and self-motivation are virtues that we value very highly. Whether it’s sports or business or personal growth, most of us tend to believe that nothing is beyond our reach if only we are willing to put in the effort to get there. Even the hardest or highest goals, we tell ourselves, can be reached if you’re willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears.

Today’s Solemnity of All Saints, at first glance, might indicate that this idea is even true in terms of our eternal salvation. After all, a saint is nothing other than a person who is in heaven, and surely those in heaven had to work hard to get there! Jesus gives us a kind of road map of how salvation can be worked out in today’s Gospel, and it certainly sounds like it must take a lot of effort. Being poor in spirit, merciful, clean of heart, peacemakers, even persecuted for the sake of righteousness – that all sounds like a lot of hard work.

But there’s something inherently wrong with believing that getting to heaven is mostly about our own efforts. In the last few months, Pope Francis has been writing and speaking about how often we operate out of the belief that we can be good and holy without God’s help. That view is actually an old heresy called Pelagianism that the Church condemned long ago but which still crops up all the time. As Pope Francis says, because we are formed in a culture that values self-reliance, individual autonomy, and hard work, we tend to think that our salvation is ultimately something that depends upon us and our own efforts, like making it to class, studying for a test, or eating something other than Ramen.

The problem with this view is that it doesn’t have any place for God. Holiness is not something ultimately about merely trying hard enough, or developing sufficient interior strength to make it happen on our own. Rather, holiness is about receiving what God wants to give us, and ultimately being conformed to Christ. There’s no doubt that holiness does require self-discipline and hard work, at times, to become the saint that God has created us to be. But everything starts with God and what he is doing, rather than with us. The saints are not super-humans who had capacities for self-discipline and moral excellence far beyond our own. They were ordinary men and women who became extraordinary because they got out of God’s way and received what he wanted to give them.

In the first reading today, John the Evangelist describes his vision of seeing “great multitude… from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” This is the apocalyptic vision of the men and women who are in heaven at the end of time. But as John describes, they didn’t get there through their own striving, but rather because they have been made clean through the blood of the Lamb. Blood would seem to be a strange thing to use to make something clean; unless you are talking about sins and washing them away through the blood of Jesus Christ. The saints are not those who tried hard enough but rather those who were washed clean from their sins by the grace of Jesus Christ and through that grace they became like him. They lived out those Beatitudes mentioned in the Gospel not through their own efforts alone but by cooperating with God’s gift and his power working within them.

Friends, we are called to be a part of that “great multitude” that St. John describes. To get to heaven is the highest goal – indeed, the only true goal – that any of us should have. But if we rely merely upon our own blood, sweat, and tears to reach it, we will fall short. Instead we must rely upon the blood of the Lamb – God’s grace given to us in Christ, which we receive especially through the sacraments. Having received it, we then can seek to follow Jesus’s road map of becoming “blessed” and joining that heavenly number.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Our High Priest

A number of years ago, when I was still in seminary, I had the opportunity to spend about two weeks in the Holy Land, including about one week in Jerusalem. Among the highlights of the trip for me was a visit to the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism and a place that has always fascinated me. If you’re not familiar, the Western Wall (sometimes called the Wailing Wall) is made of stone, about four stories high, right in the middle of Jerusalem’s Old City. It is the only remaining visible part of the ancient Jewish Temple Mount of the first century, the rest of which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

Today, pious Jews visit the Western Wall out of respect and remembrance for all that the Temple symbolized. But for the Jews of Jesus’s age, the Temple was understood as God’s dwelling place here on earth. On high feast days, the Jewish people gathered there to worship the presence of God and each day the Temple priests offered sacrifices in penance for the people’s sins. When the Temple was destroyed, this ritual culture was destroyed along with it, and in many ways, the Jewish religion was changed forever. God’s presence was no longer something near, dwelling among them; instead it felt distant, far off. No longer could sacrifices be offered for sins, but only the private prayers of the people. Today, when Jews from around the world visit the Western Wall, they do so mostly to honor the memory of the past. They may recite quietly a psalm, or place a prayer or intercession on a slip of paper in a crack in the wall, but they are there to recall what once was and to pray for its return.

I mention all of this background because it is helpful to understand the second reading that we heard today. For the last several weeks, our second reading at Mass has come from the Letter to the Hebrews, and we will keep hearing from this letter for the next several weeks to come. The whole purpose of the Letter to the Hebrews – or as we would call them, the Jewish Christians – is to explain how Jesus Christ is the new High Priest, the one who by his Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection has forged a New Covenant between God and humanity. The author of this letter wants to help his readers to understand that God’s presence is not distant, far off, or unapproachable because of our sinfulness. Rather God still dwells among us, not in a Temple, but in the very person of Jesus Christ, he who is like us in all things but sin.

This week, we hear what may be the very heart of the Letter to the Hebrews. Jesus is our High Priest not because he has taken this honor upon himself, but because God chose him for this role. Why? Because unlike other human priests, Jesus was able to offer a perfect sacrifice for sin – his own sinless self, his very life in exchange for our lives. Because of this, God has glorified him, raising him to his right hand. Because our humanity is now with the Father, we share in the identity in the Son – through him, we have become God’s beloved sons and daughters.

That's the general gist of the Letter to the Hebrews, and hopefully, this is not new information to us – this reality is at the very heart of our Christian faith. But the Church reminds us of it in these weeks through the readings of the Letter to the Hebrews in order to gently encourage us in an area that we need encouragement. After all, don’t we often feel like God is distant, far off from our daily realities? Don’t we too often let our sins and shortcomings and limitations prevent us from approaching him? Don’t we unwittingly tend to adopt a mindset of believing God’s presence as something inscrutable or intangible? If you’re like me, the answer is undoubtedly, “Yes.” 

19th cent. Russian icon Christ our Great High Priest and King

It is important to understand that while we may feel this way at times, this is not how God wants us to feel, nor how he truly is. God is not distant from us but utterly near, utterly approachable. In the person of Jesus, God has taken a share in our humanity and has provided for us a remedy for our sinfulness. Because Jesus shares our humanity, we are in a sense present already before God; and because of that, we can call upon his presence at every moment – to heal us, to strengthen us, to remind us that God is not distant but truly near, dwelling among us in the person of his Son. Jesus, our High Priest, did not just save us long ago – he continues to save us even now, interceding always to his Father on our behalf and reaching out to restore our humanity with his own.

“What do you want me to do for you?” That’s the question that Jesus asks in love to Bartimaeus in the Gospel. In love, he asks it also today of us. Like Bartimaeus, we need to give him a concrete answer! Call to mind right now the area of your life where you feel the most broken: the sin that you feel you cannot be rid of; the situation or relationship that needs healing beyond your own powers; the mindset or tendency that draws you away from your identity as God’s beloved son or daughter. Whatever your fault, believe that it is also an opportunity, because it is your answer to Jesus’s question: “What do you want me to do for you?” Through the power of our High Priest, that area of weakness can become an encounter of salvation. How often God wants to give us precisely what we most need, but we fail to ask! Or if we do ask, and we don’t see an immediate a response, we grow discouraged, instead of waiting patiently and confidently to see how God will respond in a way better than we knew.

Friends, as important as it is, there is another site in Jerusalem even holier than the Western Wall. It is the Tomb of Christ – notable because it is empty, because Jesus, chosen from among us to restore us to God, is now risen and at his right hand interceding for us still. Each time we approach the sacred altar, as we will in a few moments, we receive upon our very tongues not only the Lord’s Holy Divinity but the fullness of his Sacred Humanity as well, which heals us of our weakness, restores us in his grace, and reminds us of our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters. May our Eucharist this day help us to experience anew his Presence dwelling among us and fill us with joy at the “great things he has done for us,” and can do still.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Path to Glory

All of us, at times, are guilty of it. Amid the routines of our daily lives, especially the challenging or tiresome parts, we think about what it would be like to win the lottery, to release a hit album or bestselling novel, to run for political office and win. We fantasize about how our lives would change if we were transformed into someone rich, famous, or powerful. It’s hard not to let your imagination run wild.

Jesus of Nazareth certainly wasn’t rich or powerful. But he was famous, probably the most famous person that most ordinary people had ever seen or heard before. Imagine what it must have been like to be one of his disciples, even more of one his twelve apostles, among the inner circle of his friends and confidantes. The apostles had come to know Jesus when he was still relatively unknown, and had left everything to follow him. Before their very eyes, Jesus’s fame and authority grew, and as his inner circle of friends and confidantes, so did theirs as well. Naturally, they began to imagine about what would happen when Jesus came into the fullness of his authority, and how they would be affected. They began, in short, to fantasize about their own prospects of power.

In the Gospel today, these daydreams take concrete form: two of Jesus’s inner circle of apostles openly ask to share in his power and authority. With the possible exception of Peter, the brothers James and John might be described as the boldest of the apostles. Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has nicknamed them “Boanerges”, or “Sons of Thunder,” probably a description of how they were especially bold and passionate in demeanor. If that’s the case, it’s little wonder then that these sons of Zebedee are the ones to openly ask for what all of the others had been dreaming of.

Rather than immediately dismiss them for arrogance or criticize them for being power hungry, Jesus instead asks if they are really committed to doing what it takes to achieve the glory they desire. Jesus uses two phrases to describe the tests of their resolve – they will be baptized with the “baptism with which I am baptized” and drink the “cup that I will drink”. Those words give us a clue that Jesus is perhaps not thinking of glory in the same way that James and John are envisioning it, but they don’t seem to be dissuaded in the least. They see Jesus not just as a friend or teacher, but as their ticket to an earthly influence that they could never before have dreamed of. They are ready to hitch their wagon to Jesus’s star, to borrow an old phrase, so that he can bring them what they truly desire.

I imagine that we tend to look at James and John with mild pity at their naïveté, or disgust at their ambition, or some mixture of the two. But the truth is that James and John are not far off from the right path. Following Jesus – and being baptized in his baptism, drinking the cup that he drinks – will indeed bring them great glory, though not the fame and influence that they desire. Rather, the glory they will have is a share in the Passion of Christ, which is the only path to sharing in the victory of the Resurrection. Jesus shows the depth of his own greatness when he pours out his very life on the Cross, and so fulfills the mission that his heavenly Father had entrusted to him. To be the disciple of such a master means, as he says, to learn the lesson of suffering, to see service and self-denial as the precious ambitions that lead to true glory.

The Apostles James and John, Sons of Zebedee (c. 1533) by the Master of Ventosilla

While we may think ourselves much wiser or much nobler than James and John, the uncomfortable truth is that we’re probably not. Like James and John, we too want the good things that we believe following Jesus can offer us, but we look to receive them in the here and now. Even if we don’t desire riches or fame for being Christians, we expect to receive other things which are no less worldly: acceptance and admiration, for example, solace and comfort, a general avoidance of suffering, sorrow, and self-denial – despite the fact that Jesus has precisely said that those things cannot be avoided if we wish to follow him.

This Gospel affords us the chance to look at how well we are living up to the standard that Jesus has given us: “to serve rather than be served.” If we are frank with ourselves, it’s likely that often we are not much better than the rest of the world in the very things we should be, if we truly sought to make the Lord’s mindset our own – things like: bearing gracefully insults and slights that come our way; guarding against judgmentalism of mind and heart; seeing in the poor, downtrodden, or detestable the face of Christ himself; desiring not fame, influence, or riches, but a conformity to Christ that will show others and ourselves we are serious about following the Master.

The good news is that no matter how often we may fall short, we can begin anew. Jesus has left us an abiding testimony of his love for us the sacrifice of the Cross; but it also is an example for the kind of love and service that he calls us to. The Cross is not just an unavoidable stop on our path to glory; it’s the very road to get there. What a worthy practice it is to carry a crucifix with us each day to remind us of this, or to make sure we always pray with one, to remember the kind of love that Christ calls us to. Being a Christian is not a self-improvement project – it’s about learning how to love in a true way, in a way that must die to self in order to serve the other.

Friends, following Jesus won’t bring us earthly fame or success, but it should transform our lives nonetheless. Even more, it can secure for us our heavenly reward. James and John, those “Sons of Thunder,” received at long last – and continue to enjoy – the glory they so greatly desired, but it came as the fruit of the love and service, rather than of ambition or self-interest. It is the glory promised to every person who accepts the vocation to Christian service that Jesus calls us to and for which he has given us the Cross as the path to follow. So, let us be bold and passionate and ambitious – not for ourselves, but for Jesus, and for others, by practicing humility, love, and service. Christ has called us, and has shown us how to follow after – let us begin!

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Danger of Riches

I have been a priest for a little over six years, and thus far, I have been blessed to minister quite a bit to young people. I’ve been the pastor here at St. Thomas Aquinas for just over three years, and before that, I was chaplain and administrator at a junior high school in Fort Smith. If there is one thing about young people that my experiences with them have taught me it’s that they value, above all else, authenticity. They love a "straight shooter" – someone who tells it like it is, who lays his cards openly on the table, because it’s honesty that they love best and deceit that they hate most. Even if they disagree with you, they appreciate authenticity. 

In today’s Gospel, a rich man approaches Jesus with an honest question. The Gospel according to Mark that we heard doesn’t mention it, but we know from the other Gospels that this rich man is also a young man. Perhaps he is used to people trying to beguile him because of his youth, or flatter him because of his money. He sees in Jesus a straight shooter, and so he rushes up to him to ask him the question that dominates his thinking: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s very much the question of a young person – direct, sincere, and focused on what he has to do to get what he wants. Anyone who has worked with young people recognizes such eager intensity.

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (1889) by Heinrich Hofmann

How does Jesus respond? Gently. He reminds him of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments – specifically those that relate to how we are to treat others: to not kill; to not commit adultery; to not steal, bear false witness, or defraud; to honor father and mother. The young man responds that he has been faithful to these commandments, and Jesus takes him at his word. But having affirmed him in what he is doing well, he now tells the young man where he is “lacking.” As the Gospel says, he looks upon him with love, and then tells him to sell all that he has, to give it to the poor, and to come and follow him. If the young man desired straight shooting from Jesus, he certainly got it. Even today, we might tend to think that Jesus is asking an awful lot, perhaps too much. After all, this is by all accounts a decent man, a man who treats others fairly, who wants to receive eternal life. Must he really give up everything in order to enter heaven?

One of the deepest truths of our faith is that God knows us better than we know ourselves; he sees us as we really are, beauty spots and blemishes. The Letter to the Hebrews today says that the “word of God … is sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating… able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” When Jesus Christ, the Word-made-Flesh, encountered the young man, he saw him at the deepest possible level. He saw that he was at heart a decent person, and that he had obeyed the commandments that related to others. However, he also saw that he was lacking in the first and greatest commandment: to love God above all else, with one’s heart and soul and mind and strength. The young man immediately understands how right Jesus is; he has allowed his material possessions to occupy the primacy of place at the foundation of our very self that only God must have. Only by giving up worship of a lesser god can he secure what he rightly desires: eternal life with the true and living God. Perhaps we can see then that, far from being unfair or too demanding, Jesus has helped the man go directly to the crux of the matter – he has given the man the insight to see himself as God sees him.

Sadly, as we see, the rich man is not ready to follow Jesus’s invitation. There are many things that can prevent us from hearing and heeding the voice of God. Among them, though, it seems that wealth – especially the love of possessions – presents a particular risk. Why is it so dangerous? Perhaps because it is so attractive, so alluring, and so misleading. Riches and possessions can lure us into the false sense that we are safe and secure, protected from many of the things that can cause unhappiness in this life. The rich young man in today’s Gospel certainly did not have to worry about the things that many people in first century Palestine did: how to secure another day’s wages, how to put bread on the table for another meal, how to keep a roof over their family’s head. But while his wealth offered him a certain amount of worldly security, it did not answer the deep longing that he had for the assurance of gaining eternal life. In fact, as we saw, in the end his riches became the primary obstacle for the heavenly inheritance that he desired.

The Gospel today presents us with a chance to examine how we treat the things of this world, especially our material possessions. We may not tend to think of ourselves as overly wealthy – certainly we can think of others who have more than we do. But the truth is that – compared to others whom we know, compared to others in our society and around the world, certainly compared to others throughout history – most of us in fact live lives that are quite comfortable and comparatively well off. How subtly at times do we fall into that mindset of making our material possessions the standard by which we judge our security, the goal toward which all of our efforts and striving are aimed!

Friends, we would do well to listen to the voice of Jesus, speaking with love to us – he who knows us so well, and who desires our perfection. Like the rich young man, most of us are decent enough – but it is not mere decency that will save us. Instead, we must be willing to do what the young man was not: to give up whatever occupies the primacy of place in our hearts that is not the living God. Do we give greater attention to material rather than spiritual matters? Do we treat our resources as an end, rather than a means to provide for those in our care, to help the less fortunate, to build up the Church? Have we let the desire for possessions or a focus on financial security distract us from the heavenly inheritance that God calls us to share? Do we spend more time thinking and worrying about what we have, what we don’t have, or what we want to have than we do about the state of our souls?

Pope Benedict XVI once said, “Christ did not promise an easy life. Those who desire comforts have dialed the wrong number. Rather, he shows us the way to great things, the Good, towards an authentic human life.” The rich young man in today's Gospel was not ready to accept the Lord’s invitation, but there are many who have. Today in Rome, Pope Francis canonized seven new saints for our Church – men and women who heard the voice of Christ speaking to them, and who responded. Unlike the rich young man, they knew that true, lasting wealth lies in being in relationship with the living God, and they sought to love him with all of their heart and soul and mind and strength, forsaking whatever else threatened to take his place. If we desire to join their company, let us hear the Lord’s gentle, loving invitation this day, and respond by doing whatever we must to inherit eternal life.