The Gospel for Sunday, August 28th, 2016

The  Gospel for August 28th, 2016: “Conduct of Invited Guests and Hosts”

Luke 14: 1, 7-14

Reflection: The Discomfort of Evangelization is Humbling

“My son, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God” (Sirach 3: 17-18).

I begin with this quote from this Sunday’s auxiliary reading from the book of Sirach because I think we are supposed to meditate on the virtue of humility in today’s gospel as the first reading does. So I don’t want to lose sight of that purpose in this reflection. Nevertheless, I find myself distracted by something else in this gospel that I think is worth exploring as well.

If Jesus is, as we hear Him announce in John 14: 6, “the way, and the truth, and the life,” then we must pay attention to everything about Him, not just what He says, but what He does as well. I love what He says in this gospel which is a message of humility and open-table fellowship. However, what He does troubles me a little bit. Here’s what I mean.

Jesus is invited on the Sabbath to dine in the home of one of the leading Pharisees. We are told “the people there were observing him carefully” (Luke 14: 1). I think this means they are suspicious of Him, perhaps waiting for Jesus to commit a critical offense so they could discredit Him. I think He is at the table of an enemy, but I am not entirely sure. Still, Jesus is a guest in the home of another. And yet He does not appear to be the gracious guest I would expect Him to be.

First, He heals a man suffering from dropsy, a potentially very serious condition of swollen tissues due to excess water in the body. This incident (Luke 14: 2-6) is omitted from today’s gospel because it does not speak to humility. Still, the fact that it happens during this incident speaks to the tension during this meal. Jesus’s healing of this man demonstrates the legalism of the Pharisees is not a path to salvation. While I am pleased with this lesson and that Jesus performs this needed healing, I believe there must have been a growing discomfort among the guests at this challenge to Pharisaic tradition.

What Jesus does next makes me quite uncomfortable, and not just out empathy for those at the table. He notices the guests are “choosing the places of honor at the table” (7). In response, He tells a parable of a wedding feast during which gives two pieces of advice. For guests, He says to choose a seat of low esteem to avoid being asked to move from a seat of honor reserved for someone more important. It is better to be asked to move up rather than down. He then gives the moral: “For everyone who exalts himself  will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (11). For hosts, He says to avoid invited guests who can pay you back. Rather, He says to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind….” (13). This he says directly to the Pharisaic host of His meal and ends with, “blessed indeed will you be for their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (14). Clearly, Jesus is being critical first of the other guests in their choice of seats and second of the host in His choice of guests. Isn’t this a rude thing for a guest to do?

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not criticizing Jesus. Furthermore, I understand those at the dinner need to hear this message of humility and unselfishness, just as we all do. But what bothers me is if I should view this incident as an evangelical model. Do Christians have an obligation to preach the gospel, as Jesus does here, in an openly critical way when we are in enemy territory, if I may use that expression? I don’t know if I can do it; I don’t know if it would be effective; and I don’t know if this gospel is suggesting we should evangelize in this way. I just don’t know.

Now that I have that off my chest, let me return to the theme of humility. What I do know is that I struggle with the inevitable conflicts that arise from evangelization. I have a low tolerance for conflict, and I find it very difficult to imagine braving the tension Jesus surely causes with what He says and does at that Sabbath meal. In admitting that weakness to myself, I realize it is just another place where I am not in control; God is. So I humbly ask the Lord to use me as He will. If I am called upon to bravely evangelize in enemy territory, I pray for the Lord’s strength to do His will. If He spares me this discomfort or sees wisdom in refraining from speaking the gospel truth in moments of conflict, then I pray I will know His will in that intent as well. And in this ongoing struggle to do God’s will over my own, the one grace I lean on every week is being a guest at the table of the Eucharist. I think if we approach that table with humility on a regular basis, Jesus will take care of the rest.

The Gospel for Sunday, August 21st, 2016

The Gospel for August 21st, 2016: “The Narrow Door; Salvation and Rejection”

Luke 13: 22-30

Reflection: There is Hope in Our Common Striving

In my reflection on last Sunday’s gospel, I cited C.S. Lewis’s rather famous observation from The Problem of Pain that the door to Hell is locked from the inside. In other words, the damned choose to be there by rejecting Jesus’s offer of salvation. Today’s gospel allows us to revisit this notion and explore the risk of Hell further. The reality of Hell, which Jesus is quite clear about in this gospel, is unpleasant. And yet we must think about it as we consider our commitment to a Christian life. I believe most of us, if we are being honest (in the way that Jesus is being honest in this gospel), do an occasional, or possibly frequent, cost-benefit analysis when it comes to sin. We feel the urge to sin and think how much risk can there really be? Am I really on the path to Hell?

The follower’s question in the passage provides an interesting angle for inquiry on this issue: “Lord, will only a few people be saved” (23)?

Jesus’s answer is sobering: “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (24).

Is that answer a cause for cynicism? Is it a reason for the weaker among us to give up or for the faithful to despair at the loss of friends and family? It is difficult to remain hopeful at times when confronted with a narrow door for all of humanity.

In Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved? With a Short Discourse on Hell, Hans Urs Von Balthasar delves deeply into scripture and tradition in search of a more optimistic answer. He acknowledges Jesus’s both/and position on this question (to borrow a phrase from Bishop Barron). On the one hand, Jesus speaks unequivocally about sinners going to Hell in multiple New Testament passages, like the one for today’s reading. And yet Von Balthasar notices that these passages are spoken by a “pre-Easter Jesus” (location 241 in Kindle Edition) describing what was at the time present reality. He contrasts these references to post-Easter passages, especially those found in the Pauline letters, that remind Christians Jesus came to save all. For example in Timothy 2, where Paul states, “God our savior… desires all men to be saved and all men to come to the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all” (4-5). There is hope for all in these words, which is why as a Church we pray for all of humanity.

Von Balthasar, in the end, dares to be hopeful, and his insight into this problem gives me hope as well. In the last chapter titled, “The Obligation to Hope for All,” he proposes the notion that the possibility of Hell for our brothers and sisters is one of the ways God keeps our own focus on willing the good of others. It is not enough to concern ourselves with our own personal salvation and be satisfied that others may fall short of Heaven. Such a selfish attitude ensures that we remain too bloated with sin to pass through the narrow door. However, when we start to concern ourselves with the eternal good of our kindred from all walks of life, we finally are capable of the selfless love that joins us with our Creator and that Jesus brought as fire to purify the world with his death on the cross. His victory, the resurrection, is our cause for hope. We are capable of loving others unselfishly in our efforts to follow Jesus. This is why the first word of Jesus’s answer, “strive,” may be the most important. If each of us strives daily—while still falling short daily– to love others as Jesus has loved us, together as a gathered Church in Jesus, we will accomplish the salvation that is beyond us otherwise. We are obligated to will the good of others as God does. In this He will know and perfect us in His love for Heaven. So hope remains a distinct and critical virtue in our striving toward Jesus, our savior. While we should fear eternity without Him in Hell, we need to stop worrying about our own salvation and concern ourselves with helping Jesus bring all sinners to Him. How beautifully ironic that the only way to fit through the narrow door is in the company of the rest of humanity.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, August 14th, 2016

The Gospel for August 14th, 2016: “Jesus: A Cause of Division”

Luke 12: 49-53

Reflection: The Door to Hell is Locked from the Inside

Do Jesus’s words in this gospel make anyone else uncomfortable?

He states openly:

Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.
From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son
and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter
and a daughter against her mother,
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (51-53)

This sounds pretty Old Testament to me. What is Jesus saying here?

First, I think the disciples’ notion of peace is different than ours. Jesus is not speaking about inner peace here, but rather unity among all of God’s people, especially the scattered tribes of Israel. The Jews expected the Messiah to be a warrior-king in the mold of David. They thought this unity would be won on the battlefield where all opposition to God would be quashed through warfare. On the contrary, Jesus is making it clear the gathering of His people will be accomplished in a non-violent means that will allow for dissension.

Why? This is where the notion of free-will is so critical to our understanding of salvation. Jesus offers a salvation to all His people through the radical act of unselfish love accomplished by his death on the cross. In that sense, we are all pre-approved for salvation. The catch is accepting this salvation means subverting our own will and following God’s will instead. God’s will is for the good of others, the kind of love called agape. It is the love Christ modeled by dying for our sins so that all of fallen, sinful humankind might be perfected and saved. This is what Christ means when he says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing” (49). Christ’s sacrifice is purifying as fire purifies; it obliterates the sins of the world. It helps us deny ourselves so that we may joyfully participate in God’s perfect agape love, free from the selfish attachments of the world.

In the end Christ knows not everyone is willing to surrender his or her will to God’s will. Some will die clinging to selfish pride and refuse Christ’s offer of salvation so they do not have to give up their attachments. Likewise, they will refuse the opportunity for their soul to continue its purification in Purgatory, where the souls of the departed continue to purge their attachments so all that remains is love of God and His creation. The Lord will not force His love on us. It must be freely chosen to be authentic. You can’t fake it, which is why the real test is actively loving others, including the unlovable. Those who chose self-love over God’s love will create the dissension Christ describes in this gospel reading. Being born of the same family does not guarantee salvation any more than being circumcised did for ancient Jews. Each and every one of us is confronted with the same choice: God’s will or our own; eternal life or sin and death. Some will choose self and blame others, even family members (or especially family members).

In this understanding, Jesus is not suggesting He has come to cast sinners into Hell and sow dissension in families. He has come to save; and for us today, His mission is accomplished and the kingdom is at hand. But He is the ultimate bearer of truth as well. So He must be honest that Hell is a very real possibility if we choose to reject Him. If we fail to repent and build a relationship based on putting God and others first, we can consign ourselves to Hell. This happens not because it is God’s will, but because we have oriented ourselves inwardly for so long that we reach a point of not being able to repent. We have the power to block out Christ’s light permanently.

I think C.S. Lewis has it right in The Problem of Pain when he said, “The doors of Hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of Hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.”

Uncomfortable, truth? Yes. Damning? No, quite the opposite. As long as we believe Christ and His Church will help us to be saved—that in fact through them is the only way to be saved—we have the faith which animates the choice of God over Self. Every time we act on that faith, we throw the key to Hell’s doors a little further from us. Granted, we may go back and pick them up again. We are sinners after all. But with each return back to God comes a greater capacity for unselfish love–the strength of Christ’s permanent victory over sin which eventually banishes those keys from view forever.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, August 7th,2016

The Gospel for August 7th, 2016: “Vigilant and Faithful Servants”

Luke 12: 32-48

Reflection: Prayer as Vigilance; Prayer as Dialogue

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the servants who have been left in charge of the household while their master is away at a wedding. His point seems to be the servants should remain attentive to their duties and be ready to open the door for the master upon his return. Peter discerningly asks, “Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone” (41). I think his question is a good one. Is the divine expectation of vigilance to the Lord’s mission just for His priests, for which the apostles are being prepared, or for all of us, lay person and clergy alike. Jesus answers the Peter’s question with another question: “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute [the] food allowance at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so” (42-3). In my view, this avoidance of a direct answer can only mean we must all reflect on the question and put ourselves in the position of the steward. If we do so, we realize we all have a part in stewardship of the Church too. As a result, we must be ready to carry out the master’s will, even when He appears to be absent or delayed in returning. In our baptism, we have all been gathered into Christ’s mission to save the world, each with a calling and part to play in the theo-drama. It is a mission we must strive to understand and carry out, even when it seems beyond us, especially when confronted with the freedom to choose our own plans over God’s.

To this basic point, I want to insert a term I was introduced to in last’s week homily at my church, “practical atheism.” I had not heard this before. As the homilist explained, a person who displays “practical atheism” believes in God but acts as if He does not exist. I realized this applies to my life frequently. At times, it is intentional; I knowingly choose my own plans with awareness that they are in conflict with God’s will. Because the “master is delayed in coming,” I begin to “beat the manservants and maidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk….” (45). This willful disregard is clearly sinful. But what may be even more worrisome is when I slip into unvigilance because there has not been some big sign or punishment and the Lord seems absent. Jesus addresses this kind of inattention later on Luke (21: 34), “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise.”

So how do we combat our unvigilance, especially the latter where our call from God has been forgotten in the cacophony of “anxieties of daily life?” I am sure attenders of daily mass have less problem with this. Internalizing the Lord’s presence in daily communion surely fortifies all who practice this habit. Likewise, regular confession helps heighten our awareness to the insidious power of sin. I have often learned the power of the sacraments to sharpen my vigilance not so much when I participate in them out of regular habit, but rather when I allow too long of lapses between them. So, habitual participation in the sacraments is critical. Still, I think there needs to be something more to bridge the gap between sacraments, however long it may be. It is not realistic for many followers to attend daily mass or give weekly reconciliation, even if there is a sincere desire to do so. To fill that void, I humbly offer prayer. In particular, prayer that is spontaneous, honest, and dialogic with God. Even though there is perfection in the words of the Our Father and other scripted prayers, I think sometimes we need to give voice to our resistance and struggle so that it is given to the Lord freely to transform. To say honestly to the Lord or even shout, I feel lazy or angry or lustful or selfish! Why can’t I have a break from all this responsibility? Why can’t I just follow my own desires? You ask too much, Lord!

This dialogic approach to prayer allows God to play the divine psychologist. In venting our frustration, we open those feelings to God’s mercy and wisdom. He reminds us help is present in the Holy Spirit who will ease our burden. He will remove from us the unrealistic expectation that we can achieve perfection on our own and take away our sins so that we remain in His love. In the context of Jesus’s parable, it is kind of like if the unvigilant steward took out his cell phone, called his master, and said, “I’ve been drinking and beating the servants again. What should I do?” Maybe the master returns, not to punish, but to save the steward from his own weakness. Or maybe he talks him through the crisis and shows him how to set things right. Dialogic prayer is a life-line to Jesus when other forms of worship may be beyond us either for practical or psychological reasons. How can I say this with certainty? I just sent Jesus one of those life-lines yesterday. If you don’t mind, I will keep the details private. Nevertheless, I hope you believe me when I say He answered my prayer in unexpected ways. I feel the sweet relief of His salvation and strengthened to remain in Him for another day or even just another hour. This is a moment of being “blessed,” (43) a state of happiness for which there is no replacement. Practical atheism cannot lead to blessedness. Whatever escapes we may find in that approach, they cannot match the peace and joy of being blessed by the Lord.