Friday, September 22, 2017

OT XXV [A] Is 55:6-9; Phil 1:20c-24, 27a; Mt 20:1-16a

An old “Family Circus” comic strip shows the two boys Jeff and Billy squabbling over the size of the slices of pie their mom has placed before them. “They aren’t the same,” Jeff pouts. Mom tries again, evening-up the slices. Still Jeff is upset. “They still aren’t the same!” he whines. This time Mom uses a ruler and absolutely proves that both slices of pie are the exact same size. “But Mom,” Jeff complains, “I want mine to be just like Billy’s . . . only bigger!”
We all tend to think we deserve a bigger slice of the pie. From the time we are little children, we are taught that doing more is worth more. If a five year old gets a dollar for picking up their toys and clothes; If an eight year old gets five dollars for feeding the dog, emptying the garbage, and vacuuming the living room; Then a twelve year old should get considerably more for mowing the lawn, doing some laundry, watching younger siblings, and cleaning the garage.
Chores and allowances teach children that in this world’s economy we have to do work in order to receive our “rewards.” We want our kids to learn and to live the adage, “Hard work pays off.”
That is why the parable in today’s gospel text is so unsettling. It is easy to identify with the grumbling guys who worked sunup to sundown, through the heat of the day, and then watched in amazement as some slackers who worked for one measly hour, in the cool of the approaching evening no less, got paid a full day’s wage. Of course the full day worker EXPECTS more and SHOULD get more. It is only fair. More work should equal more wages. ”Hard work pays off.” But it doesn’t. Not in Jesus’ story of the kingdom… Because it is not about fair or just payments. It is about God’s mercy and grace in human life.

A story is told of the lady who had a stranger appear at her door and simply handed her a $100 bill. She was dumbfounded! Then the same thing happened the next day….and the next…and the next. For thirty straight days this stranger gave her $100 without explanation. On the 31st day the lady was waiting at the door when she saw the man coming down the street. But then he passed her house and walked up to her neighbor’s house, and gave her a $100 bill! The first lady was indignant and yelled at the guy, "Hey, where’s my $100 bill?"

It’s easy to think that when life is going our way that somehow we deserve it. We come to expect it. We even plan for it. This parable is not so much about the injustice of workers getting paid the same for different amounts of work. It is about God and God’s mercy and grace. Sometimes it appears that some people are receiving more of God’s grace than others. But as Christians we live, not in a world of justice, but of grace.

In the first reading Isaiah says: The thoughts of God are not the thoughts of man. The ways of God are not the ways of man. As the heavens are higher than the earth, the ways of God are higher than the ways of man and the thoughts of God are higher than the thoughts of man. The way of God is beyond the understanding of the world; the ways of men are limited.

In Israel there were many great veteran warriors to fight with Goliath. But, God chose a young boy who was not even able to put on the armor to subdue Goliath. When God chose a simple maiden, Mary, to be the mother of Jesus, there were many young women of respectable genealogy, who were hoping to be called by God.  When Jesus called the illiterate fisher man Peter, in Israel there were many learned men who wished to follow Jesus. All these show that God chooses who He wants, and when he wants. And this call is a sheer act of mercy on God’s part.

God rewards us, not in the measure of what we do, but according to His good will. A full wage is offered to each of us, whether one has served him for a whole lifetime, or has turned to Him only at the eleventh hour. The story shows us how God looks at us, sees our needs and meets those needs. 

All the people, no matter when they come, are equally precious to God. Similarly, long-time Church members should expect no special preference over recent members.  Jesus warns them that the Gentiles who put their Faith in God will have the same reward a good Jew may expect.  Matthew, by retelling this parable, may well desire to give the same warning to the members of his Judeo-Christian community who considered the Gentile Christians as second-class Christians.  Those who carry out the will of God with love and humility will be acceptable before the Lord. So, Jesus says, “The first will be the last and the last will be the first.”

Pope Francis says: “The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” The parable suggests that we can't work our way into Heaven because by our own unaided strength we can never do enough good in this life to earn our everlasting reward.

To God, we are more than just numbers on a payroll. All our talents and blessings are freely given by God. Hence, we should express our gratitude to God by avoiding sins, by rendering loving service to others, by sharing our blessings with the needy, and by constant prayer, listening and talking to God at all times.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

OT XXIV [A]: Sir 27:30--28:7; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35

Monday was September 11, a date that Americans consider one of the most significant in the nation’s history. It has become one of the epic historic events equivalent to the founding of the United States, the ending of the conflict between the North and the South, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the ending of World War II and the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  September 11, 2001 is a date that challenged both the freedom of a free people and the grace of forgiveness that Americans are told by our Lord Jesus Christ to offer, even to their enemies. But forgiveness is not an easy gift to give. Our readings for this Twenty-Fourth Sunday concern forgiving our offenders and being reconciled with them.   

It was the Rabbinic teaching that a man must forgive his brother three times. The Biblical proof for this was taken from the first and second chapters of Amos where we find a series of condemnations on the various nations for three transgressions (Am.1:3, 6, 9; Am.1:11, 13; Am.2:1, 4, 6). From this it was deduced that God's forgiveness extends to three offenses, and that He visits the sinner with punishment at the fourth. Also, seven was a holy number to Jewish people, symbolizing perfection, fullness, abundance, rest, and completion. Peter expected to be warmly commended.  But Jesus’ answer was that the Christian must forgive “seventy times seven times.” In other words, there is no reckonable limit to forgiveness.

A certain married couple had many sharp disagreements. Yet somehow the wife always stayed calm and collected. One day her husband commented on his wife’s restraint. “When I get mad at you,” he said, “you never fight back. How do you control your anger?”
The wife said: “I work it off by cleaning the toilet.”
The husband asked: “How does that help?”
She said: “I use your toothbrush!”

We must forgive in order to be forgiven. Jesus explains this after teaching the prayer, Our Father, saying=, "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Mt 6:14-15). The same theme is reflected in the first reading from Sirach today. James offers this warning in different words: "For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy" (Jas 2:13). This means that Divine and human forgiveness go hand in hand.
Francis of Assisi’s prayer is: “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.” Our failure to offer pardon means that we have forgotten God’s goodness or have not fully appreciated the unconditional forgiveness we have received from Him.

Forgiveness involves more than absolution of guilt. It involves the reconciliation of our past and the healing of our brokenness. It involves intentional work to heal and be reconciled with another.
Forgiveness does not mean condoning evil. Neither in God nor in the Christian community, do forgiveness and reconciliation mean the indefinite tolerance of evil and unjust behavior. The king was perfectly ready to forgive the senior official. But how could reconciliation take place when the official later behaved in such an abominable way to a brother? God and the Church can forgive the repentant sinner, but they cannot condone un-repented behavior that is a source of real evil and suffering. God cannot be reconciled with the sinner who chooses to stay in sin, nor can the Christian community fully incorporate a member who refuses reconciliation and the healing of the behaviors that offend against truth and love. With God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, forgiveness is easily available to the individual Christian, but along with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we must seek a mutual healing of wounds and a real change of mind and evil behavior.

We need to forgive the person who has wronged us before the hatred eats away at our ability to forgive. It will not be easy, but God is there to help us. We can do this by offering that individual to God, not sitting in judgment on him or her, but by simply saying, “Help so-and-so and me to mend our relationship.” Whatever the hurt, pain, disappointment, fear or anger that we may be feeling, we need to say, “God, I give this over to You. I can’t take care of it, but I know that You can. What would You have me to do?” And then listen. This isn’t merely being passive – or passing the buck to God. In fact it’s just the opposite. This kind of prayer and this kind of listening has to give birth to action, but it’s action that realistically acknowledges God’s Lordship, and trusts that, through God’s power, we can do all things, even the impossible . . . like forgiving. When we withhold forgiveness, we remain the victim. When we offer forgiveness, we are doing it also for our own well-being. Forgiveness allows us to move beyond the pain, the resentment, and the anger. We always have a choice: to forgive or not to forgive. When we forgive we make the choice that heals.
Let’s say with full awareness the Lords’ prayer: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The common theme of today’s readings is that we are all  “keepers” of our brothers and sisters, for each one of us is important to all the others in our Faith community. In the first reading, God tells Ezekiel that he is to be a "watchman for the house of Israel,” obliged to warn Israel of moral dangers.  If Ezekiel should refrain from speaking God’s word intended to convert the wicked, God will hold Ezekiel responsible for the death of the wicked. 

In the second reading, St. Paul points out that the love we should have for one another should be our only reason for admonishing the sinner.  Love seeks the good of the one who is loved. Therefore, we should admonish one another so that we all may repent and grow in holiness. In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that true Christian charity obliges a Christian with correction and counsel for an erring brother or sister who has damaged the community by his or her public sin. Matthew expands a saying of Jesus, originally concerned primarily with forgiveness into a four-step procedure of confrontation, negotiation, adjudication and excommunication, dealing to finally mend a broken relationship within the Christian fellowship.

1.Confrontation:  The worst thing that we can do about a wrong done to us is to brood about it. Brooding can poison our whole mind and life, until we can think of nothing else but our sense of personal injury. We mustn’t gossip either, but should go to meet the offender in person, and point out lovingly, in all seriousness, the harm he has done.  This is to solve the issue between them.

2.Negotiation:  Suppose the first step does not resolve the situation and the person refuses to admit wrong, and continue in a bad behavior, the second step is to take one or two other members of the Church along with the wronged person to speak to the wrongdoer and to act as confirming witnesses. The taking of the witnesses is not meant to be a way of proving to a man that he has committed an offence, but for emphasizing and explaining calmly the gravity of the situation. 

3.Adjudication: If the negotiation step does not resolve the situation either, the third step is to have the whole Church or community of believers confront the wrongdoer. The Church provides an atmosphere of Christian prayer, Christian love and Christian fellowship in which personal relationships may be righted in the light of love and of the Gospel. Finally, in matters of honor and shame, the community is the final arbiter, for the community as a whole suffers from the wrong.

4) Excommunication: If the offender chooses to disregard the believing community's judgment, the consequence is “excommunication.” That is, the wrongdoer should be put out of the Church with the hope that temporary alienation alone may bring the erring person to repentance and change. But the excommunication should be carried out with genuine grief (1 Cor 5:2), not vindictive glee over another's "fall" or self-righteous pride.

In one of the popular Chicken Soup volumes, Dennis E. Mannering tells about an assignment he once gave to a class he teaches for adults. He gave them the assignment, "Go to someone you love, and tell them that you love them." At the beginning of the next class, one of the students began by saying, "I was angry with you last week when you gave us this assignment. I didn't feel I had anyone to say those words to. But as I began driving home my conscience started talking. Then I knew exactly who I needed to say ‘I love you’ to. Five years ago, my father and I had a vicious disagreement and never really resolved it. We avoided seeing each other unless we absolutely had to at family gatherings. We hardly spoke. So by the time I got home, I had convinced myself I was going to tell my father I loved him. Just making that decision seemed to lift a heavy load off my chest. At 5:30, I was at my parents' house ringing the doorbell, praying that Dad would answer the door. I was afraid if Mom answered, I would chicken out and tell her instead. But as luck would have it, Dad did answer the door. I didn't waste any time. I took one step in the door and said, ‘Dad, I just came over to tell you that I love you.’ It was as if a transformation came over my dad. Before my eyes his face softened, the wrinkles seemed to disappear and he began to cry. He reached out. But that's not even my point. Two days after that visit, my dad had a heart attack. So my message to all of you is this: Don't wait to do the things you know need to be done. What if I had waited to tell my dad? Take the time to do what you need to do and do it now!"

People hurt us, sometimes intentionally, sometimes without meaning to. But sometimes who is in the right and who is in the wrong is not as important as finding a common ground where the relationship can be maintained. Sometimes that means that we have to take the first step, even though we know that the other person is in the wrong. And the best time to take that step is today.

Friday, September 1, 2017

OT XXII [A] Jer 20:7-9; Rom 12:1-2; Mt 16:21-27  

Joseph Ton was pastor of a Baptist church in Rumania while that country was ruled by Communists. The authorities hated him because of his preaching. They arrested him, and threatened to kill him. Ton said to the arresting officer:
"Sir, your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying. Sir, you know my sermons are all over the country on tapes now. If you kill me, you will be sprinkling them with my blood. Whoever listens to them after that will say, 'You'd better listen. This man sealed it with his blood.' They will speak ten times louder than before. So, go on and kill me. Then I will win the supreme victory."
The officer sent him home. Ton then said, "For years I was a Christian who was cautious because I wanted to survive. I had accepted all the restrictions the authorities put on me because I wanted to live. Now I wanted to die, and they wouldn't oblige. Now I could do whatever I wanted in Rumania. For years I wanted to save my life, and I was losing it. Now that I wanted to lose it, I was winning it."

Today Jesus reveals a paradoxical truth. Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Last week Our Lord was praising Peter’s faith; this week he is condemning his worldly outlook, scolding him telling get behind me Satan.  Jesus announces that he “must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised." After correcting Peter’s protest, Jesus announces the three conditions of Christian discipleship: “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” Unless we constantly remind ourselves of the demands of this difficult vocation from God, we will fail to be the kind of disciples that Christ expects us to be.

Our Lord teaches us that the cross is a part of our life whether we want it or not, and what matters is how we face it and why we face it. He also encourages us to practice self-detachment and to remember that everything we have comes from God. The world tries to turn our minds away from the Cross, but the cross is the true path to life and fulfillment. When we accept and shoulder the crosses in our life, it renews our attitude toward the fleeting things of this world and what is truly important. No matter how often we try to accumulate things and ensure comfort, something prevents it from happening. Some people are wealthy, or healthy, or in charge of their lives, yet they feel something is missing.

Our Lord reminds us today that we can have the whole world, but not possess what is truly important: an enduring and fulfilled life. That enduring and fulfilled life doesn’t exist in this world, yet this world is the path to it. It depends on how we live in this world. The only way to achieve what we truly desire is to take up our cross for the sake of a higher cause: Jesus’ cause.

Remove the cross from our faith and it is a house of cards. It will crumble under the slightest weight.

When a bud goes through the pain of bursting, it is transformed into a beautiful flower.  When a pupa struggles out of a cocoon, it is transformed into a charming butterfly. When a chicken breaks the shell and comes out it becomes a lovely bird. A clay pot sitting in the sun will always be a clay pot. It has to go through the white heat of the furnace to become porcelain.  When a seed bursts the pod and falls to the ground it begins to grow as a plant. When we undergo the suffering and pain of life we get strengthened.  St Paul wrote:  “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:3-4).”  Suffering is not the last thing in life. It leads us to something greater as long as we are ready to accept its challenges.  “A bend in the road is not the end of the road... unless you fail to make the turn.”  

Dear brothers and sisters, the Christian life is the sacrificial life. When we practice little acts of kindness we are writing our name in the history of time. We will be remembered by many even after our departure from this world.

A true disciple asks, "Am I willing to sacrifice something for the Kingdom?" 

Let’s ask Our Lord today to help us see our crosses not as burdens, but as opportunities to help construct a better world in his name. Through our crosses, in his service, we can achieve a better life for ourselves and others. Let us listen to the teaching of Jesus, “whoever wishes to keep his life safe, will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.”