Monday, July 1, 2013

Monday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 18:16-33; Matthew 8:18-22)

C.S. Lewis published a series of essays entitled God in the Dock.  The book presents evidence for what the title suggests: that modern humanity has placed God on trial.  Rather than trusting God, many today prefer to blame at least the concept of God for the world’s wars.  It is not an entirely new concept as today’s first reading shows.

Sodom and Gomorrah are known for corruption, but not all of their inhabitants are sinful.  God could not be considered just if He, as Abraham probes, destroyed the cities with as few as fifty good people.  But what if there were not quite fifty good people?  He equally could not be considered just if there were forty or thirty or even ten.  Beyond that God could destroy the cities and save any of the just through special acts of mercy.  In the end this is what God does sending fire and brimstone and Sodom and Gomorrah while sparing Lot and his family.

For us God has shown himself more than any human concept of justice would have Him.  He not only refuses to destroy humanity for its outrages but has sent His Son to save us from our folly.  But we have to trust in Him by following Jesus’ ways.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Memorial of Saint, Irenaeus, bishop and martyr

(Genesis 17:1.9-10.15-22; Matthew 8:1-4)

St. Irenaeus of Lyons has been called the greatest biblical theologian in history.  He was, in fact, first a missionary to France.  True to his calling, he worked in the lingua franca which was Celtic and died a martyr’s death.  Regarding his work as a biblical theologian, Irenaeus expounded on the critical biblical insight that God created the world good.  He wrote how human sin distorted that goodness, but now that Jesus has rooted out sin, humans can overcome any of sin’s residual effects.   We might see this lesson in the gospel reading today.

Jesus has just delivered his gospel of grace in the Sermon on the Mount.  As he descends his pulpit, he meets a leper who begs Jesus to clean him.  Leprosy is a disease that symbolizes sinfulness in that it eats away the goodness of the human body.  The same grace proclaimed in the gospel Jesus preached now eradicates the leprosy of sin.

In living the gospel of grace, we too are cleansed of sin – not just on the surface but inside.  When we love God and neighbor from the heart and with good deeds, we shine like the stars with God’s goodness.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thursday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 16:1-12.15-16; Matthew 7:21-19)

If Abram showed himself in yesterday’s reading to be a man of faith, he betrays that faith in the sequel today.  Rather than trusting in God to bring about a great nation, Abram acts against God’s will as it is implied in nature.  He accedes to Sarai’s treacherous plan to give him progeny by means of her maidservant. It is wrong because, as Jesus reminds the Sadducees in the gospels, from the beginning one man and one woman were created to form one partnership.

Some background to Abram’s adulterous consent helps to appreciate what the story intends.  Abram and Sarai sojourned for a while in Egypt where Abram coaxed Sarai into doing something similar to what she has him do in the reading today.  Out of fear for his life when Pharaoh takes a shine to the beautiful Sarai, Abram asks Sarai to join his harem.  After Pharaoh experiences hardship, he gives Abram back his wife and chastises him for his deceit.  In the reading today, of course, Sarai turns table on Abram by suggesting that he sleep with another woman.

We should draw at least two lessons from the stories.  First, marriage has a sanctity that is not to be violated.  Wife and husband form an inseparable union that demands sacrifice even, if necessary, of one’s life.  Second, and no less insufferable to contemporary ears, we are not to do evil to bring about good.  Abram commits a grave sin by acceding to Sarai’s scheme.  Although we are to move with God’s promptings, we must never think that God wants us to do what is wrong.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wednesday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 15:1-12.17-18; Matthew 7:15-20)

In order to stem the tide of divorce in the late twentieth century, some American couples entered “covenant marriages.”  The two parties agreed to counseling before marriage and to limited grounds for divorce once married.  The arrangement takes its name from the type of relationship between Abram and the Lord witnessed in the first reading today.

At the basis of the relationship is Abram’s faith in God which was “credited to him as an act of righteousness.”  As long as Abram maintains that faith, he can be assured of the Lord’s assistance.  God, of course, has not failed in giving Abram innumerable descendants.  Today they include not only the millions of Jews throughout the world, but the billions of Christians and Muslims as well.

We have entered into a new covenant with God through Jesus Christ.  By being baptized in his name we become heirs to the promise of his resurrection from the dead.  But it is not an imperishable legacy  in the sense that we too must keep faith in him. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Tuesday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 13:2.5-18; Matthew 7:6.12-14)

Country crooners are fond of singing, “How could something that is so wrong feel so right?”  They are only mimicking the Christian’s dilemma as Jesus presents it in today’s gospel.

He is addressing his disciples when he lays out the alternatives of a wide gate/road leading to destruction and a narrow gate/road bringing one to life.  Christians are not to see the possibility of being damned only applicable to the unchurched.  They can, like anyone else, lose their way by pursuing pleasure or power or prestige.

We must keep faith in Jesus.  Although it is possible to lead a righteous life without learning of his promises, it is likely our trust in his word that will keep us on the path of eternal glory.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

(Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66.80)

A young man was recently ordained to the transitional diaconate.  God-willing, next year he will become a priest.  He is the only son in a small family, but his parents were not reluctant at all to see him pursue his vocation.  Like Zechariah and Elizabeth in today’s gospel, they are grateful to have a child who will serve the Lord.

John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, is named not after one of his grandfathers as was the custom of the time, but on God’s order communicated by the angel.  His parents are pious people intent on doing the will of God.  They seem willing as well to accept his destiny of being a prophet in the desert.

Often we make plans for our futures, and perhaps even the futures of our family members, without discerning God’s will.  Yes, such discernment can be both neither completely conclusive nor satisfying, but giving ourselves to the will of God has its rewards.  Devoting ourselves to God brings both internal peace and eternal glory.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Memorial of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, religious

(II Corinthians 11:18.21-30; Matthew 6:19-23)

A wise preacher told the story of how every Christian must carry her or his cross.  Some complain that theirs is too heavy, but when they exchange it for another, they learn that theirs was not that onerous after all.  Today’s saint and first reading speak of two Christians with very different types of cross but born with similar grace.

St. Aloysius Gonzaga came from a privileged background.  He was willing to give up wealth for the strict life of a Jesuit.  However, God called him to Himself after only a few years of faithful formation.  St. Paul by contrast suffered much through many years of rigorist service.  He catalogues his trials in today’s first reading -- lashings, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, exposure to the elements, etc. His purpose is not to boast of his endurance, but to show how Christ sustains him. 

Rather than complain about the troubles we have, we much more profitably should pray to bear with them.  There is usually another bearing a greater burden which may humble us.  But more to the point, our prayers unite us to Christ who always eases our suffering.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Thursday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

(II Corinthians 11:1-11; Matthew 6:7-15)

A proud Texan was telling someone he met at the airport what a great state he comes from.   He said that it is such a fine place to live that at the end of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings when everyone says the Lord’s Prayer together, he changes the words to say, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Texas.” Not everyone has such a high opinion of the Lone Star state, but there are customs and courtesies there, as everywhere, worth emulating. 

Let’s go back to Jesus’ petition that the earth be more like heaven.  How would it have to change to become so?  Everyone could submit a list of suggestions.  Here are some.  We would study the word of God more and justify our own opinions less.  We would be ready to listen to others’ ideas, slow to endorse them, and reluctant to reject them completely. We would develop a helping hand, a caring heart, and a clean mind.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wednesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

(II Corinthians 9:6-11; Matthew 6:1-6.16-18)

When appointing a new church, pastors know how to secure donations.  They inform the people that if they purchase a window or a pew for the church, their names will be placed on a plaque attached to the object purchased.  One might legitimately ask if this custom undermines Jesus’ directive that alms must be given in private to receive God’s favor.

Similar questions may be made of fasting and praying.  This is the same gospel that is read on Ash Wednesday when people demonstrate that they intend to fast by wearing ashes on the forehead.  And, of course, people don’t always pray in their rooms but regularly go to church to pray with others.  Jesus cannot be condemning these practices.  He is warning, however, that if one’s primary motive in doing pious deeds is to win human favor, he or she will be deprived of God’s blessing. 

As Samuel the prophet is told, God judges the human heart.  He knows our true motives.  We may even fool ourselves in thinking that we are doing a truly good deed, when we mostly want to look good to others.  “Then can we ever be sure that we stand in the grace of God?” some will ask.  It would be presumptuous to say that, but we still can live in joyful gratitude thanking God for the sacraments which, received properly, bring us God’s grace.  At the same time we want to ask God for enlightenment about our true selves.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tuesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

(II Corinthians 8:1-9; Matthew 5:43-48)

A recent magazine article tells the story of how the very rich give away much less of their income than poorer people and then, not to charities but to non-profits like universities and hospitals. St. Paul addresses the issue in today’s second reading.

Paul appeals to the Corinthians to be generous in the collection for the poor in Jerusalem.  He says that the churches of Macedon – principally, the Philippians and the Thessalonians – although relatively poor in comparison to the church in Corinth, have proven to be remarkably self-sacrificing in their contributions to the collection.  He then asks the Corinthians to consider Christ who sacrificed the richness of divinity to become a lowly human so that humans could share in divine glory. 

We receive so many requests from churches and charities that it seems the regular mail service is no more than a conduit for such appeals and for advertisement.  We should not become frustrated nor feel guilty about not giving to everyone who asks.  Rather, we should give what we can – even until it hurts -- to those who seem most in need of our help.  Doing so, we imitate Christ and can hope to share in his glory.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Monday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

(II Corinthians 6:1-10; Matthew 5:38-42)

Acteva is a company that ostensibly helps non-profit organizations with Internet services.  Recently, however, a number of the organizations that Acteva supposedly helps have found themselves swindled of their monies.  Left discouraged, such organizations could hardly be blamed for feeling a bit skeptical when they hear Jesus’ message in today’s gospel.

Jesus exhorts his listeners to open their wallets to those needing assistance.  Does he mean that one should risk losing the necessities of life?  Such a radical interpretation probably misrepresents Jesus who shows concern about people’s general welfare.  Nevertheless, he knows that people tend to so preoccupy themselves with money that they lose sight of the value of a human being.  Jesus only insists that his followers be generous with those in real need.

It is hard to lend when we intuit that the borrower will not pay us back.  Perhaps we should not lend what we cannot afford to lose or, better, from the beginning consider loans as gifts and ask borrowers to “pay it forward” (give it to another in need).  In any case Jesus wants us to help the poor with our money as well as with our prayers.  

Friday, June 14, 2013

Friday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time

(II Corinthians 4:7-15; Matthew 5:27-32)

Summertime brings people to the beach.  Men typically go to look at women and women go to be looked at – both groups with lust in their hearts.  Jesus addresses the situation in today’s gospel.

After he posts the great rewards for his followers in the beatitudes and gives a few images of encouragement, Jesus presents himself as Lord refining the law given to the Israelites at Sinai.  He tells the New Israel that they sin not just by committing adultery but by desiring it in their hearts.  Only by transcending such desires, which amount to idolatry, will they be able to see the true God.

Girl-watching (and boy-watching as well) seems like a pastime innocuous enough that we may not want to comment upon it.  Yet it counters Jesus’ teaching and instrumentalizes human beings. We need to model modesty as well as give each person his or her due respect.  We should also exhort youth when there is a chance of being heard to practice self-control over what they look at and what they think.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Memorial of Saint Anthony of Padua, priest and doctor of the Church

(II Corinthians 3:15-4:1.3-6; Matthew 5:20-26)

Although only thirty-six years old when he died, Anthony of Padua was declared a saint within a year of his demise.  He was recognized as one of the greatest preachers of his time, so strong that heretics converted after hearing him.  In surprising contrast, St. Paul was evidently not a forceful preacher.  He hints at this in the reading from II Corinthians that we hear today.

When Paul writes that “our gospel is veiled” but “we are not discouraged,” he is referring to his inability to convert the whole of Corinth.  Later on in the letter he reiterates a criticism that “’his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible’” (2 Cor 10:10).  But his defects as a speaker do not bother him as long as he remains loyal to his commission.  Indeed, he will write of enduring hardship as testimony to the legitimacy of his message about Jesus Christ.

We too testify to Christ by deeds of love.  But let us not be silent about our motives.  An age that speaks sophomorically about an “altruism gene” needs to hear that if it were not for Jesus Christ, we would likely behave very differently.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wednesday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time

(II Corinthians 3:4-11; Matthew 5:17-19)

It is surely a credit to pro-life advocates that they can see in an infinitesimal human embryo a human being.  What gives them confidence, of course, is the knowledge that the embryo has all the life-producing information and dynamism to grow into a vivacious person.  St. Paul displays this same confidence in the incipient Christian movement when he compares it to the illustrious Jewish faith in the first reading today.

Paul acknowledges the inherent superiority of Christianity to Judaism because of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Although we have to recognize the Spirit’s role in Jewish prophecy, we should see along with Paul its activity in the lives of Christians as the essential difference in their morality.  Where Judaism depends on a code of law to keep people in line, Christianity looks to the grace of the Spirit.  Christians also have a written law.  The Sermon on the Mount, which incorporates much of Jewish law, provides that.  But what is quintessential about Christian life is that this law is everywhere activated by the Spirit of love. 

We may see this Spirit at work in many pro-life workers.  Some stand voluntarily on sidewalks in front of abortion clinics day after day.  They are sometimes described as yelling at women about to have an abortion, but this kind of behavior is not the rule.  Rather, their love shines through as they pray for the fetus about to be annihilated and gently try to persuade the mother that there is help readily available for her to care for her baby.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Memorial of Saint Barnabas, apostle

(Acts 11:21b-26.13:1-3; Matthew 5:20-26)

Barnabas may be readily identified for his companionship of Paul on the so-called first missionary journey.  But we know him in the book of Acts as well for his remarkable display of generosity.  Barnabas, originally called Joseph, is the man who gave all the proceeds of land he had sold to the community of disciples in Jerusalem.  Such a magnanimous gesture demonstrates what Jesus teaches in today’s gospel.

Jesus instructs his disciples that they must be the “light of the world.”  He intends that they do what some today call “random acts of kindness” so that the world will inquire their motivation and find out that it is the Holy Spirit who comes to them through Jesus Christ, the Lord.

In times when people are urged to think of themselves and to consume as if there were no tomorrow, it is challenging to think of our neighbor and act on her or his behalf.  Yet Jesus requires this kind of generosity of his disciples.  Gratefully, he equips us with the Spirit that not only moves us to deny ourselves but provides joy when we do so.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Monday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time

(II Corinthians 1:1-7; Matthew 5:1-12)

It was said that Fr. John Powell, S.J., could keep a church basement full of people sitting on metal chairs attentive to his talk for two hours.  The marvelous communicator wrote about Jesus’ beatitudes as the “Be Attitudes” -- dispositions that promised the fullness of life.  We hear them in context today as the first installment from Matthew’s gospel which will be read on weekdays for most of the summer (or winter in the Southern Hemisphere).

Although catechisms sometimes list only eight beatitudes in Matthew, there are actually nine.  The first four (blessed are the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, and those desiring righteousness) speak of passive attitudes necessary to align one with God.  The second four (the merciful, the clean of heart, peacemakers, and those who suffer persecution) indicate one’s actively carrying out the divine will.  The long ninth beatitude reiterates what is said in the previous one but gives it a new purpose, Jesus himself.  It conveys Matthew’s belief that the kingdom of God has arrived in Jesus.

The beatitudes are so countercultural that most people do not understand them, let alone want to imitate them.  They rile at the thought of being “poor in spirit.”  This does not mean that we should have a negative attitude, but that we should trust in God as those without resources are inclined to do.  The irony that Jesus intends to convey is that when we live by such faith, we end up rewarded and not deprived.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

(Ezekiel 34:11-16; Romans 5:5b-11; Luke 15:3-7)

Long before the ubiquitous souvenir of New York was conceived, images of a heart were seen in many Catholic homes.  The heart belonged to Jesus but the image indicated that he wanted to share it with others.  To put it simply, the heart of Jesus indicated belief in his eternal love for the household.  All the readings of today’s mass tell the extent that the love will go.

For a long time the reading from Romans was understood as saying that God had made it possible for Christians to love Him.  As busy as people get in this world, it does seem like a supernatural feat to think about and then to love God.  But Paul actually has God’s love for His daughters and sons in mind in this particular passage.  This purely unmerited love moved Jesus to die on the cross.  It now fills Christians’ heart so that they may freely do what is right and so merit heaven.

Always falling on a Friday, the feast of the Sacred Heart gives us reason to contemplate Jesus love and then to imitate it.  Sometimes it means just being patient with those around us like a middle-aged man whose wife has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Under intensive treatments, the wife has become irritable with her husband, but he patiently continues to care for her.  Such grace will enable the woman to die in peace, and the man to live with peace of mind for a long time.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Thursday of the Ninth Week in Ordinary Time

(Tobit, 6:10-11.7:1bcde.9-17.8:4-9a; Mark 12:28-34)

In a classic philosophical debate Socrates holds that knowledge of what is right results in a desire to do it.  Aristotle disagrees claiming that weakness of the will can short-circuit the desire.  Most people given the choice between chocolate fudge and an apple for dessert would agree with Aristotle.  What would Jesus say?

In the gospel today Jesus makes a telling comment to the scribe who congratulates him on his choice of the greatest commandment.  He says, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”  One may interpret this statement as meaning that the scribe is not in the Kingdom because he does not profess faith in Jesus.  Perhaps, but it is more likely that Jesus too recognizes the difference between knowing something as right and actually doing it.  The scribe is not yet in the Kingdom because he only acknowledges the need to love God and neighbor.  He still must humble himself to love.

Knowledge gets us started on the “good life.”  It pinpoints what we should do, provides viable options, and assesses the risks of each alternative.  But actually doing what is right – true morality – also requires will-power – the virtues of temperance, fortitude, and prudence.  For example, young adults know the need for pre-marital abstinence from sexual intercourse to live chastely.  But sitting alone with their partners on Saturday night, they require the virtues of the will to overcome being swamped by lustful desire.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Memorial of St. Boniface, bishop and martyr

(Tobit 3:1-11a.16-17a; Mark 12:18-27)

An incident in the life of St. Boniface is reminiscent of the first reading today.  Boniface was an eighth century English monk who became a missionary to what is now northern Holland and Germany.  In evangelizing the native tribes, he came across an ancient oak tree that was sacred to their god Thor.  Boniface cut down the oak tree, and when the people saw that Thor was not going to punish the deed, they abandoned their pagan beliefs. 

The story recalls the supposed curse on the maiden Sarah in the Book of Tobit.  The obviously pedagogical tale speaks of the distressed woman whose seven husbands die before consummating their marriage.  She is said to be cursed by the demon Asmodeus whose influence will be expelled by the angel Raphael’s fish oil.

The stories taken together advises us on the grip superstition often has on people.  It should never deter us from doing what is right.  The question of the occult gives some pause here, but it is true that most of the time where demons are supposedly involved the root of the difficulty is superstitious belief.  Superstition, a sin against the First Commandment, must be resisted.  If it continues to bother us, we should pray for courage to confront it squarely. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Tuesday of the Ninth Week in Ordinary Time

(Tobit 2:9-14; Mark 12:13-17)

Joe Louis was one of the greatest boxing champions because of his readiness to take on all challengers.  He defended his heavyweight champion title a record twenty-five times.  If you don’t mind the comparison, Jesus in the gospel these days is confronted by different opponents who resent his popularity among the people.  He has no more trouble putting down their arguments than the “Brown Bomber” in conquering all foes.

In today’s passage an unlikely alliance of Pharisees and Herodians  questions Jesus on the controversial  issue of the census tax.  The people thought the tax unjust, but few wanted to invite reprisal by speaking against it openly.  So the band asks Jesus openly of his opinion of the tax.  Jesus sniffs out the conspiracy and responds quite deftly by avoiding the issue.  In the process he wins even more fame among the people.

In this case Jesus appears as much clever as wise.  But more to the point is his consistent trust in God.  He stands composed because he knows that his Father is with him – not merely through intuition but by constant prayer.  In this way we should follow his example.  It is better not to strategize to outwit those who take opposite positions from us in debates.  No, we should to pray for God’s enlightenment with due effort to comprehend the issue at hand.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Memorial of St. Charles Lwanga and companions, martyrs

(Tobit 1:3.2:1a-8; Mark 12:1-12)

For most of the second half of the twentieth century Chicago was governed by the Daley machine.  People throughout the country were aghast at the corruption, but the local populace, prospering economically, did not mind the patronage.  It seemed to take pride in the statement made by a city alderman, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.”  Jesus can be seen as preaching against such a system in today’s gospel.

The parable of the vineyard is a thinly veiled indictment of the Jewish leadership who stand before him.  It insinuates that the chief priests, scribes and elders are abusing the trust God has placed in them.  Instead of caring for the people, it argues that they make a profit for themselves.  It further prophesizes that in time the Jewish leaders will kill Jesus himself but for this act, they will be severely punished.

Courage, of course, is required to speak up against improper governance.  Similar to Jesus in the gospel, today’s saint, Charles Lwanga of Uganda, was martyred for admonishing his king for outrageous behavior.  Prudence is always necessary when making public outcries, but prudence joins forces with courage to speak truth to power when the situation demands it.