Sunday, December 10, 2017

"Maranatha"

All of us at times have asked the question: “Where was God?” We see some terrible story on the news or we experience some tragedy in our own lives, and we just think “God, why were you not there? Why did you not act?” In a world where we see much darkness and evil, the seeming absence of God’s presence can sometimes be difficult to bear. For some people, this can even be the reason to doubt or deny a belief in God – they struggle with understanding how a good and merciful God could allow evil and not act. Why would God seem to be silent, why does he appear to be idle when clearly so much is wrong with the world?

These feelings are nothing new. People of faith throughout history have felt the same. We see an example in our first reading. The people of Israel in the first reading are in exile in Babylon, a thousand miles from their homeland of Canaan. The favored people of God had been overrun by a pagan king, deported from their homeland, and now dwelled as prisoners in a foreign land. It would have seemed impossible for them to return, and at this point, many abandoned hope. They thought, “God, why did you not act? Why have you abandoned us?”

To these cries of anguish, the prophet Isaiah tells the people to take comfort. He prophesies that not only will God end their exile, but that he himself will lead them back to their homeland himself and he himself will care for them like a shepherd cares for the flock. While these words may have been dismissed by many as foolish, the Jewish people did return to their homeland and renewed there their covenant with God.

Sidney Nolan, Desert Storm (c. 1955)

The season of Advent at its heart is one of waiting, even one of longing – eagerly, anxiously desiring the Lord to set aright the evils of the world. It is also though a season of remembrance, of recognizing that God has acted already. Throughout the history of Israel, God intervenes to rescue his people – from enslavement in Egypt, from destruction at the hands of the Assyrians, from exile in Babylon. Most importantly, in this season we recall how God acted definitively by sending us a Savior, Jesus.

This year, we have the happy occurrence of this Second Sunday of Advent falling right between the two Marian feasts of Advent: the Immaculate Conception of Mary last Friday and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe this coming Tuesday. With Mary’s Immaculate Conception, we celebrate that God breaks through our dysfunction in ways that perhaps are unseen by us but nonetheless are real – that is, that even as we cry out for salvation, he has already been at work in secret. Mary was conceived without sin because God knew she would be the mother of our Redeemer, and so his action to preserve her sin was answering our need in ways that we did not even yet know. In the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we recognize how the God of majesty and power comes in humble, lowly ways. The God of eternity and of infinite power is born to a young girl in a quiet and far-off place. Yet, this unassuming virgin is herself mighty in power because of the child she bears, and powerful also for us who are her spiritual children. As she said to Juan Diego in her apparition, we should let nothing disturb or frighten us, because in her we have a loving mother who will care for us just as she cared for her Son, the God-Man.

So we may indeed wonder, “Why does God linger in resolving the injustices of the world? Why does he not act?” But St. Peter speaks clearly in our second reading – God has acted, by giving his Son Jesus, to save us from our sins. It is because he desires the salvation of all of us – because he does not wish to lose even a single one of us to eternal separation – that he waits. It's not delay, really, but patience, and he is patient because we are hesitant, untrusting, uncommitted.

And yet, one day God will act, his Son will return, and then all wrongs will be righted, every hill made low, every valley filled, and all will see the glory of the Lord. The early Christians had a word that was especially fitting for this Advent season: “Maranatha.” The word is an Aramaic formula that means the coming of the Lord and it can be translated in two ways. The more common translation is a command: “Come, O Lord!” It is an expression of our longing, our desire for the Lord Jesus to come and render justice for the evils we see around us. But it can also be translated, “The Lord has come.” And this perhaps is the deeper, important meaning for us – that even as we yearn for God to fix what must be fixed, to rescue us from our plight, to save us from all that ails us, we remember that he has come, and that he has done these things for us as a comfort to never doubt or be afraid.

My friends, our fundamental belief as Christians is that God does not ignore us; he is not absent. He has not only acted in human history, he has become one of us in the Incarnation. This is not just a private religious opinion that we hold, but a firm belief that underlies everything that we understand about the world. We may go through difficulties and wonder why the Lord seems to delay; but we must not doubt or be afraid, because God has acted and is acting in and through his Son Jesus. Like the early Christians, let us say “Maranatha” – “The Lord has come. Come, O Lord!” – and be steadfast in making straight the path for when he does.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Mary, God's Mansion

No one likes to live in a shabby house. We may not all live in mansions, but we like for our abodes to be clean, respectable, and a place that is both inviting for guests and also comfortable for ourselves. A house is in some way a reflection of who we are, and so we want it to reflect the best version of ourselves.

Today we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the woman whom God created to be the mother of his Divine Son Jesus. Mary, as the woman who bore Jesus inside her womb, is sometimes called the Ark of the New Covenant, because her body was the abode of Jesus. If a house is a reflection of who we wish to be, we can say that Mary is the perfect reflection of what God designed a human being to be. In order to give us the gift of his Son, both human and divine, God first had to create for him a fitting dwell place, a vessel which would bring him into the world, and Mary is that vessel.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is the first action that God took in human history to introduce our Savior Jesus into the world. Following the Fall of Adam and Eve, which we heard about in our first reading, our human nature was tarnished, like a house that has fallen into disrepair. In Mary, God restores the house of our human nature, preparing for himself a fitting dwelling for the Incarnation of the Son and also prefiguring in her the healing mercy that Christ’s sacrifice extends to all of us.


La Inmaculada Concepcion (La Colosal) (c. 1652), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Mary’s entire identity is rooted in the role that God had for her to be the mother of the Christ, to speak those words, “Thy will be done,” that she said to the angel Gabriel. And so for this reason, because she submitted herself so fully to the will of God, she is the pinnacle of our human race. As we admire our Blessed Mother, we should remember a great truth of the Christian life: that God is the author of every good gift, every grace. The salvation that he wrought for us in Jesus began before the empty tomb, before the birth in the stable at Bethlehem, before even the appearance of an angel to a young girl in Nazareth. It began first at the depth of Mary’s being, when God foresaw what her Son Jesus would do, and gave her the grace of sharing in that salvation at her own conception.

Perhaps we might think today: in what ways has God been at work in my life in ways that I do not appreciate, or been drawing me to himself in some way that stretches back far before I had realized? And for what might God be preparing me? What does he intend for my life? We might reflect upon the answers to these questions in these Advent days, pondering them as Mary pondered in her heart what God had done for. For all of us, the simple answer is “grace” – God’s free gift of himself that we can share in even now.

Friends, as we prepare to welcome our Savior at Christmas, let’s pause first to praise him this day for the beautiful vessel he created in the person of Mary, whose body was a mansion for the Incarnate Word, and whose soul said "Yes" to God's plan of our salvation. This day, we remember that without her, we would not have our Savior. Like she, may we give thanks for the good things that God has done for us, and rejoice in the grace that he invites to respond to, as she did, with “Thy will be done.”

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Irreproachable

It’s a part of human nature that we want the approval of others. When others think highly of us, it affirms us; when they think less highly, or even poorly, it can upset us.

We see this perhaps most clearly in the case of children. This past week I had the chance to catch up on the phone a bit with a childhood friend whom I have not seen for a while. She’s in the middle of raising her three children, and is experiencing all of the joys and the challenges that that brings. One of the things she’s learning is how much her children depend upon her for affirmation and validation, in good moments and in bad. At one moment her kids want to show off to her – “Mommy, look at me! Mommy, watch this!” – and her attention fills them with pride and satisfaction. But when she disapproves when they are misbehaving, they sulk and pout and maybe even shed a few tears because Mommy is upset with them.

This same dynamic plays out in our relationship with God, and we see it clearly in our first reading. Speaking on behalf of the people of Israel, the prophet Isaiah cries out to God for forgiveness. Israel has been wayward and unfaithful, and now recognizing that fact, they feel how distant they have become from God. Like a child trying to placate an upset parent, they are displeased because he is displeased, and sorrowful now at their misdeeds, the people of Israel desire to return to his good graces.

The basic problem of the Old Testament is that this same reality plays out over and over again. The people of Israel sins, God forgives, but Israel sins again. Each time they repent, Israel opens its eyes to how foolish they had been – to how they had been tempted from their worship of God by the allurements of this world and the anxieties of daily life – and how, as a result, they have driven off far from the Lord’s path. Thus, they cry out, as we heard in the words of today’s psalm: “Make us turn to you, Lord; let us see your face and be saved.” But despite their sincerity in the moment, the pattern plays out again. After some time, the people turn back to their sinfulness. They just don’t learn, like a misbehaving child that wants what it wants and doesn’t think of the consequences.

As we begin the season of Advent, we hear this passage for a reason. The Church suggests that we perhaps might be in the same situation. Turning the page on a new calendar year in the Church, we begin by taking stock of our spiritual houses, and doing so, we find that we are wanting, and we ask the Lord for forgiveness. It may seem that we hear a lot about the theme of conversion at Mass. Our readings often touch upon it, and I admit that I tend to preach on it often, because it is critical aspect to the Christian rhythm of life. There is something about repentance that, while difficult, allows for newness and permits the clearing of the air. When we come to Mass each week, what is the first thing we do? We admit we have sinned – “I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have greatly sinned….” By recognizing our past faults, by owning up to them consciously, we take ownership of them, rather than allow them to own us.

One of the reasons we must continually search our hearts is that it is part of what Jesus charged us to do. As we heard in the Gospel, he calls his disciples to be watchful and alert, and not to be caught off guard by his return. This new season of Advent is not only a time to prepare for our celebration of the first coming of Jesus, as a newborn child at Christmas. It is also a time to remind ourselves and to prepare ourselves for the Second Coming of Jesus, when he will return in glory to judge heaven and earth, and us along with it. Repentance is part of staying alert, making sure that we are every day gauging how faithfully we are walking the path of discipleship.

Enrique Simonet, Flevit Super Illam (1892)

While we recognize that we are like Israel, wayward and in need of God’s mercy, we also start off Advent by claiming an identity that the people of the Old Testament did not have – God’s adopted sons and daughters. St. Paul encourages the Christian community at Corinth with words that he might well have addressed to us: we have been “enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge” such that we “are not lacking in any spiritual gift”.

We are not children who don’t know how to please our heavenly Father; rather we have the grace of adoption through Jesus which allows us to understand the will of God and to be faithful to it in a way that the Israelites could not. Whenever we are in doubt, we can look to Jesus and see in him not only an example to follow but an identity to put upon, becoming each day more and more like Christ. God invites each of us this Advent to grow more fully into our identity as his sons and daughters; there are countless ways to do so. Maybe by getting to Mass just 10 minutes earlier each week, to prepare myself, to become ready with prayer and reflection to praise my God. Maybe by setting my alarm clock 15 minutes earlier in the morning to spend a little time in private prayer or reflecting upon the readings of that day’s Mass. Maybe by thinking about that one person in my life whom I am ignoring, or taking for granted, or finding to be exasperating, and to do something kind and charitable for them. What one small thing or two is God asking of you to conform yourself more fully to his Son?

Friends, as we begin Advent, we remind ourselves to keep vigilant for the Lord’s coming. The best way to do so is with eyes fixed upon him. Like a child that knows its parent is watching, we seek to please our heavenly Father by being found "irreproachable," in the words of Paul, without blame or sin. St. Augustine said that if we love our sins more than Jesus his return will make us afraid; but if we love Christ more than we love our sins, we will rejoice at his coming. Let’s not be sidetracked by spiritual drowsiness or childish selfishness, but instead keep our eyes upon the Lord, delighting in his love, remembering how he delights in us. May Jesus find us ever watchful, in this season and beyond, ready for his coming.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Warren Buffet, the American businessman and philanthropist, supposedly has two rules for how he invests his great fortune. Rule Number One? Never lose money. Rule Number Two? Never forget Rule Number One.

It seems to make sense – if you want to make money, you have to start by not losing money. But in the world of investments, it’s not quite that simple. Return follows risk, and so if you’re not willing to put anything on the line, you’re not going to gain anything more than you already have. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. In the Gospel today, Jesus uses the analogy of investment to speak about the logic of the kingdom of God. The story we hear is fairly straightforward. A master entrusts three servants with his wealth, and then leaves on a journey. He doesn’t give them specific instructions, but it’s clear that he expects them to invest what he has given them and gain a return.

Each servant, as we heard, is entrusted with something. What is it? The Greek word τάλαντον is translated in English as “talent”, but it doesn’t mean here a positive characteristic, skill, or ability. Instead it was a measurement, a weight of precious metal – an ingot of about 75 lbs. Talents were literally the fortunes of people of the ancient world; to have one, was to be wealthy, and to be a servant entrusted with one, was to bear a huge responsibility. We may tend to inherently sympathize somewhat with the fearful servant, who was afraid to put his master’s fortune at risk and so buried it out of fear. But we see how he master’s expectation of his servants is at once trusting and demanding – he has given them much and expects much in return.

This Gospel is often interpreted as reminding us that God has given unique gifts to each of us which we are to put to use in return. That interpretation is not wrong, exactly, but it can quickly devolve into something that’s rather cliché – make the most of all that God has given to you, strive to reach your greatest potential, be the best that you can be. But Jesus is not here just to give us a pep talk. There’s something more going on. 

Willem de Poorter, The Parable of the Talents (c. 1660)
The key to understanding this passage is what each servant has is not truly his; it still is the property of the master. The servant possesses it for a time, but the master is expecting the trust he has shown to be rewarded. The one who has received only one talent, and who buries it in the ground, may appear to be heeding Warren Buffet’s first rule: “never lose money.” But this is not caution; it’s cowardice. When the master returns, he appears unassuming, claiming that he did not want to lose the investment of his demanding master. But he’s really making excuses for his inaction. The intrepid servants are rewarded for their boldness, and the lazy one is punished.

The point of Jesus’s parable, of course, is not really to give us advice about investments; rather, he’s trying to impart to us a warning about our duty as Christians. In the Gospel of Matthew, this passage follows the one from last week about the five wise virgins and the five foolish virgins, and it continues the same theme: “Be ready; stay awake”. This latter part of the Gospel of Matthew is a series of descriptions about how to prepare for the end times – what the disciples of Jesus should do after he ascends to the Father and prior to his Second Coming. Since we happen to be in that very time – the era of the Church – we might consider this parable addressed directly to us.

As with last week’s Gospel, Jesus sees inaction in this period as an acute danger. This inaction can take different forms. As with the foolish virgins, it can be a lack of vigilance, of becoming drowsy, and failing to be ready for the Master’s return. We can become too accustomed to this world, to in love with its pleasures and attractions that we fail to take seriously the Gospel command to wait eagerly for Jesus’s return, preparing ourselves to greet him with continued works of faith, hope, and charity.

Inaction can also take the form of fear. Like the servants in the parable, we have been entrusted with talents – not gold or silver, and not even primarily our various positive qualities or characteristics. Rather, we have been endowed with gifts from on high – gifts that are God’s ultimately, and which he lends to us to be utilized. The talents we have been given are spiritual treasures: forgiveness, patience, endurance, kindness, generosity, humility, temperance, courage – above all, faith, hope, and love. These are not our strengths, not our talents innately – they are God’s, they are the result of his grace and they remain his even when they are within us. They are a free gift, given to us without cost, but not without expectation.

If Jesus warned us last week that we can become drowsy, like the foolish virgins, unprepared for his return, then this week he warns us that we may misunderstand the nature of the graces that we have as his believers. Faith in Jesus can bring us new life, peace, and joy, but if we do not utilize that investment of grace to make that gift increase all the more – if we let it lie dormant, or bury it under the weight of our fear and insecurity – then Christ himself will punish us for our inaction when he returns. Our Master has made a strategic investment in us, and he expects from us a return, grace upon grace.

Friends, Jesus knows a principle of return that Warren Buffett, for all of his billions, knows nothing about: give what has been given to you, and you will be all the richer for it. God has invested spiritual capital in each of us, not because of our own merits, but due to our relationship to his Son Jesus. Our own fear or laziness might tempt us to bury these gifts within us, to let them go unused and unnoticed, but Jesus commands us to share what we have received, not tomorrow but today. If we do not venture to the put the Gospel into practice now with the spiritual treasures we have been given, then we may miss out on the heavenly gains that are to come.

The English cardinal Henry Edward Manning once wrote, “Next to grace, time is the most precious gift of God. Yet how much of both we waste. Time is full of eternity. As we use it so shall we be. Every day has its opportunities; every hour its offer of grace.” Let’s look to return the Lord’s investment in us – sharing faith with those who do not believe; providing hope to those who are afraid; showing love and mercy to everyone, as they have been shown by God to us. Jesus is coming back and he wants a return on what he has entrusted to us. May he find us good and faithful servants, so that we may share his lasting joy.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Servant to All

If there’s one thing that Jesus was good at in his public ministry, it was making people in places of privilege feel uncomfortable. Throughout the Gospels, we hear how he ruffles the feathers of those whom society favored. He tells the man who has invited him to dinner, that he has shown him less hospitality than the woman from the street who anoints his feet with oil. He tells the rich man who wants to follow God’s commandments that he should sell what he has and give the money to the poor. He tells the person who feels self-righteous, they should look at the plank in their own eye before the speck in the eye of the other.

There’s probably no group though that Jesus vexes more than the scribes and the Pharisees, the religious leaders whom the Jewish people looked up to at that time. Today, we hear how Jesus warns the people that they are hypocrites – they claim the spiritual tradition of Moses, along with his authority, but their actions do not conform to their own words. They give the appearance of piety, of following God’s law, but they are obsessed with honor, they love money too much, and they burden the people with heavy demands without helping them to follow them. They are like the Temple priests that the prophet Malachi criticizes in the First Reading; they have abused their position of caring for God’s people in order to serve themselves.

Now, I recognize that there is a not so subtle irony for me as a priest from this pulpit to be telling you about the failures of religious authorities. A Gospel like this one makes me uncomfortable because I recognize that much of what Jesus criticizes about the Pharisees and scribes could be – and sadly, sometimes is – true in our faith tradition, especially from priests. We come to this vocation because of a calling to serve, but at times, we let you down, we let God down; like the Pharisees and scribes, we serve ourselves.

Today is Vocations Sunday, the Church’s chance each year to encourage and promote vocations, especially to the priesthood and religious life. I serve as an Assistant Vocations Director for our diocese and I feel a certain obligation today to preach about vocations, especially with a congregation with so many young people. It may seem counter-intuitive to promote the priesthood and religious life when the Gospel is an account of Jesus warning about religious authorities. But there is an opportunity here: to talk honestly about what we believe about vocations and how we can all contribute to good ones.

At the heart of Jesus’s problem with the Pharisees is not that they claim religious authority, but that they have forgotten what must ground that authority: loving service. At the heart of Jesus’s mission is God’s desire to attend to what we need and give it to us – though great, indeed though God himself, Jesus came to serve us. To share in his divine life, he calls us to follow his lead, to seek to love as he loves each in the way that God calls. We do that by our vocation.

Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples (mosaic), Basilica of San Marco, Venice, c. 120

The word “vocation” means calling; every person has a vocation because every person is called by God to holiness. Those vocations can vary – the three traditional ones are priesthood or religious life or to marriage – but all of them are about learning how God invites me to love, specifically, how God wants me to love Jesus and to love with the heart of Jesus. In marriage, the most common vocation, the husband and wife love Jesus in and through each other, sacrificing for each other as Jesus sacrificed for the Church, and allowing their love to be creative, as God’s is, and to bear fruit in new life. In religious life, men and women forsake the values and pursuits of this world in order to love God radically, embracing poverty, chastity, and obedience and devoting themselves either to prayer or to charitable service. In the priesthood, God calls men to love precisely as Jesus loved: not one person but all, to lay down their lives for the sake of the many by becoming an alter Christ, “another Christ,” and by making the grace of Jesus present through the sacraments.

Those ways of loving, those vocations, are the most fundamental reality of how God calls us to relationship with him. They are like heavenly blueprints for our lives; the more fully we learn them, embrace them, and construct our lives according to them, the more we will discover the true purpose of the life God has given to us. How often we are caught up, indeed deluded, in our own goals and dreams and pursuits and never stop to ask ourselves: Is this from God? Is this forming my heart to be who God wants me to be? Is this drawing me closer to heaven? Like the Pharisees, we seek worldly honor and success, we want lives that are full of meaning and distinction in the eyes of others, and too often we fail to ask whether God sees things like we do.

I think the time has come for us to be bold, to be courageous in a radical way with what God is inviting us to do. The world around us can’t wait any longer for us joyfully follow how God is leading us; to respond to the inner longing, the inner calling of our heart to serve him as we know he wants us to do. If there is one problem that I think plagues us today it is the belief, especially present among young people, that we are not up to the challenge, that we are somehow not really capable of doing what we think God wants. We have to recognize that for what it is – a lie and a temptation! God’s grace is transformative, his power knows no limits, his benevolence and love is all-consuming. All he awaits is our “Yes,” our willingness to follow where he will lead.

Vocations Sunday is a chance for us to pray for our priests, bishops, deacons, and lay ministers; for every person in authority that they may embody the servant leadership of Jesus. But it’s also a chance for us to remember and rededicate ourselves to our vocation, how God is calling us to love, and to remember that each of us represents the Church by our vocation. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a reminder that we must be involved in encouraging those who are still searching for God’s calling. We need strong, selfless, faithful marriages; we need young people who are willing to devote their lives to Christ in religious life; we need men who are man enough to be another Christ by serving as his priests. We need parents who speak to their children not about careers but about vocations; friends who will encourage the vocation they see blossoming in another; boyfriends and girlfriends who will smile and pray instead of laugh if their significant other says they think God might be calling them to religious life and the priesthood.

Friends, these words may make us somewhat uncomfortable. But Jesus does that sometimes, in order to call all of us to loving service – not just those of us who stand in pulpits and preach sermons. Each of us by our baptism shares in the mission of Christ: to serve our brothers and sisters in self-sacrificing love, whether it is in the household, in the convent, in the parish, in whatever context we find ourselves. Whatever our vocation – whether we know it and are committed to it, or are still searching for it – may doing God’s will be foremost in our minds. Jesus has told us his standard for success, and it is the only one that matters: “The greatest among you must be servant to all.” May this Eucharist help us to humble ourselves in our vocations so that God may one day greatly exalt us.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

God and Caesar

If you have ever been to Washington, DC, you might have noticed that the cars of that city have interesting license plates. Underneath the city flag of three stars and two bars, the words “Taxation Without Representation” are printed. It’s a reminder – and a protest – from the residents of the District of Columbia that, although they are taxed like every other American citizen, they have no Congressional representative. As a result, they feel as if they no voice in the larger happenings of our country.

Of course, our American idea of representative government is a relatively recent one. For most of human history, people have lived in societies with rulers not accountable to them and governments in which they had no voice. The Jews of first-century Palestine were no exception to this. Their nation was a province of a larger empire, their homeland an occupied territory of the foreign Roman power. The Pax Romana of Jesus’s day allowed for relative peace throughout the Mediterranean, but with simmering resentments and uneasy alliances. The Jewish people, more than others, found themselves caught in a conundrum: to cooperate was to become an active participant in their own subjugation, while to openly oppose Roman rule meant certain alienation, imprisonment, or death.

 James Tissot, The Tribute Money (c. 1890)

In the Gospel today, Jesus is confronted with this dilemma. Jews from both sides of the question – who normally detested each other – have joined forces to try to trap Jesus. The Herodians fear Jesus will upset the balance of things they have worked to establish with the Romans; the Pharisees believe Jesus is a threat to their authority and a false Messiah. The question they ask seems innocent enough: is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar? The tax in question was a certain coin, a denarius, that called Caesar divine. We can see, therefore, that Jesus is caught in a real dilemma: if he says it’s okay to pay the tax to Caesar, the Pharisees can claim he is blaspheming God and can stone him to death; but if he says it’s not okay, the Herodians can arrest him for sedition.

As we heard, Jesus sees through their false flattery to the malice that is underneath. His response to their question – “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but to God what belongs to God” – is charged with meaning. Often, you will hear this Gospel and this phrase in particular explained as the Christian approach to political questions: that the church and state are separate realities with separate spheres of influence and obligation. But I think that narrows Jesus’s meaning considerably; his underlying point is something deeper.

“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar but to God what belongs to God.” The implicit question Jesus leaves us with is: what belongs to God? The answer of course is everything – everything we have belongs to God, since everything we have has been received from God. Jesus is telling the Pharisees and Herodians that, being so focused on the external challenges of living among the Romans, they have forgotten that God is greater than Caesar. They have been so caught up in the one whose image is on a coin, they have forgotten that they bear God’s image – his image and likeness, in the words of the Book of Genesis – within them.


The denarius of Tiberius Caesar: "Tiberius Caesar, divine son of Augustus and High Priest" 

We too face situations of adversity, confronting things or people or situations in our life that tempt us to lose sight of what God calls us to be. Maybe it’s a family member or a coworker that drives us crazy but whom we have to put up with; maybe it’s an obligation that has been placed upon us or a situation that of our own making that is less than enjoyable. Maybe it’s a spiritual battle we are waging of some kind, a moral weakness that we can’t seem to overcome or a spiritual dryness where we’re searching for God. We can let these challenges consume us, distorting the interior image of ourselves that we draw from God – permitting ourselves to be misshapen by anger, resentment, self-interest, lust, bitterness, greed, or whatever particular reaction we may have to the challenge that our Caesars present. Or, we can recall that God has fashioned us after himself, in his own image and likeness, and that it is in him that we find our true identity and draw our strength. Every day, we have the chance to glorify and honor God, or something else; if we seek to give God what he is due first, then we will have the proper disposition to deal with the Caesars of this world as we must.

Friends, like those license plates of the District of Columbia, life presents us with constant reminders that we are not in control of every situation and that we live in a world that often is not looking out for our own best interests. But we shouldn’t let our problems take the place of God. Instead, we let God be God, and so be reminded in everything that who we are depends upon who he is, and upon what he gives us in each moment. Caesar may have a grasp on the happenings of this world, and at times we may have to pay the tax of living in the way things are now, less than ideal as they may be. But our true citizenship is in heaven, and we have there One who constantly is our representative, interceding on our behalf at the right hand of his Father, ministering to our every need and reminding us that we are his. With that knowledge, in that identity, we can face the challenges this world brings. At the Eucharistic table to which we will come in a few minutes, may the presence of Christ reassure us again of God’s presence and strength and help us to give back to him all that he has given to us.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Better Than Boxing

Leonard Defrance, Men Fighting (c. 1790)

After grade school, I had the privilege of attending an all boys Catholic high school, which had the imaginative name of… Catholic High School for Boys. Despite the dull name, it was –and still is – a remarkable school, in large part because of its remarkable principal. When I arrived there, Fr. George Tribou had been the principal for more than 30 years; he had taught my father and my uncles and now he was teaching me. He was a living legend, both as a great teacher and as a strict disciplinarian. We heard stories about the creative punishments he would sometimes give out for guys who were acting out. Not all of them would go over well today; for example, if you were caught smoking in the parking lot, he’d make you smoke the whole pack of cigarettes until you were just about sick.

I remember one year there were two guys a grade or two above us that kept getting into fights. They were friends, of a sort, who were also kind of rivals and couldn’t help but end up antagonizing each other. Throughout the fall, Fr. Tribou tried different things to calm them down, to help them get along, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, by the beginning of the spring, he had had enough. He announced that that afternoon, classes would be shortened by 30 minutes and the entire school would end the day end the gym. When we got there, we found a boxing ring set up, and the two troublemakers in the middle. They had huge, oversized boxing gloves on – the kind that would allow them to swing as hard as they liked and not cause any real damage. The sight of them fighting was pretty ridiculous, and by the end of their ten rounds, they were laughing along with the rest of us.

Because we are people of free will and independent minds, it’s inevitable that we will at times find ourselves in conflict with one another. How we deal with those conflicts largely depends on their context and on the willingness of each person to sort through them. Most times, we won’t be able to solve our differences by slugging it out with someone, nor should we. We have to find more creative avenues for solving our conflicts.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is clear that he wants us as his followers to see our conflicts with one other as redefined in light of him. Our Christian discipleship guides the way in which we handle – and are willing to handle – conflicts with others. Most of Jesus’s teachings about how we are to treat others deals first with recognizing our own faults – seeing “the plank” in our own eye rather than “the splinter” in another’s. Sometimes, the analogy is even more dire – that we should settle with our opponent on the way to court lest we be handed over to the judge and then to the jailer. Jesus is clear that the Christian first approaches any conflict with an eye to themselves – what have I done that needs forgiveness, where am I at fault, where do I need to be reconciled?

In today’s Gospel (Mt 18:15-20), however, Jesus speaks what to do in the other situation – if we are the injured party. First, we have to remember how much he speaks about the importance of forgiveness. “How many times do I have to forgive?” Peter asks this question to Jesus, just as we might ask it of ourselves about a person who keeps committing offense against us. “Not seven times,” Jesus answers, “but seventy times seven.” That is, an innumerable amount of times – we forgive as often as someone sincerely asks.

Sometimes though, when another hurts us, they don’t ask for forgiveness. This is the situation addressed today by Jesus and I think it’s one that we would do well to take to heart. Jesus’s direction, of course, is not to pick up boxing gloves and slug it out with the one who has hurt us. Rather, he says that we should humbly approach the person individually and make them aware of the fact they have hurt us. Notice that Jesus does not say we should approach them to accuse them, or to make them feel bad, or to let them know how angry we are about what they’ve done. Instead, first, we’re interested only in making them aware that they have hurt us in some way.

Hopefully, that alleviates the situation. As Jesus says, “if he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” We exist as part of a family – a human family, but especially with fellow Christians in the family of God – and seeing others as fellow members of our families, as brothers and sisters, can help us remember that we should be willing to dialogue and understanding. If speaking in private doesn’t work, then we can look at bringing the matter to others, first to a few, then even to the larger community, to help the person who has wronged us see their offense. The aim through all of this is not to shame the person but to help them realize the sin they have committed, not just against us but against God.

Sadly, even this at times doesn’t always work, and Jesus envisions this scenario too. There are times when we must unfortunately treat others as “a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jews of the time would have understood these words as advice to be are wary of such people, to avoid interacting with them too much, but also to always be ready to forgive and accept them again if they repent. Forgiveness does not mean we have to let ourselves be hurt again and again; we can and must be on guard around those who have hurt us and especially those who have not recognized they have done so. But for the Christian person, we never write anyone off – we never say anyone is beyond forgiveness, not ours and not God’s.

Friends, the way of loving and of forgiving that Jesus invites us to is ultimately the way God loves and forgives us. While it might feel good to slug it out with someone who has hurt us, either literally or figuratively, it doesn’t accomplish much in the end. My old principal, Fr. Tribou, knew that – what those two guys couldn’t settle with boxing gloves they got over via laughter of the ridiculousness of their own hardheadedness. We too should be people who are openly seeking harmony – with God, with ourselves, and with each other. Remembering our own faults, being ready to forgive, addressing someone in private who has wronged us – these are the mature ways the Christian disciple handles conflict. So don’t harden your heart against the person who has hurt you – but pray for them, talk to them, if possible, and love them enough to forgive them. Because Jesus loves you in the exact same way.