Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 99

And to another he said, "Follow me." But he replied, "Lord, let me go first and bury my father." But he answered him, "Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." And another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home." To him Jesus said, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God."

More than fifty years ago, Father Theodore, who had worked with plow horses on his family farm, explained this parable to the high school seminarians at Mount Saint Francis. Although the horses are doing the heaviest labor the plowman works fiercely to keep the team and the plow heading the right direction. A moment of inattention and the wayward plow will wander. The furrows will be crooked; useful soil, unplowed; and seed, wasted. Even twisting around to see how straight the furrows are will throw the plow out of line.

The old priest explained to this Boom Generation of boys that training for the priesthood required our full attention. We could not afford to look back with regret or look around at other options. We had to keep our furrows straight as we plowed through the books.

Perhaps I did something right because I am still here.

In today's gospel Jesus is accosted by wannabe disciples who have certain reservations. They have important business to attend first.  Jesus dismissed them; he didn't want to hear their excuses because he had resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.

There would be no "later" for him. You can't tell a leader you'll follow him after he is dead!

This unwillingness to commit has reached epidemic proportions today. Students fail to declare a major as they shop around from one specialty to another. Many couples refuse to marry despite having children, and then refuse to baptize their children. Some cannot decide which sexual orientation or gender they want to be. Others "identify" with european, then african and then native american -- and back again. 

Many alcoholics and addicts cannot decide to quit. They might go for days without a fix; they attend twelve-step meetings, declaring "I am an alcoholic" or "I am an addict." But, still unwilling to quit using, change their minds again.

Essentially, they are unwilling to die. They think there is still time to decide -- later.

In my experience it's best to let things go. My brother-in-law asked recently if I would play racquetball with him. We played together a few times twenty-five years ago, and he has continued to play. I've not attempted it since the surgeries on both shoulders. I declined. If I played I would try too hard; I would lose anyway; and I'd be crippled for a week. Only a week, if I'm lucky.

It was fun while it lasted. God willing, if there is racquetball in heaven, I'll try it again there. In the meanwhile I'll prepare for my death by exercising this body with safer, less violent exercise.

One by one the Lord gives us gifts; and then, one by one, he takes them back. We enjoy his gifts but, more importantly, we enjoy him. When we have died to ourselves completely, surrendering even the gift of SELF -- which is the most addictive substance in the universe -- we will have only Jesus.

No one who sets a hand to the plow 
and looks to what was left behind 
is fit for the kingdom of God.

Saturday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 376

To what can I liken or compare you,
O daughter Jerusalem?
What example can I show you for your comfort, virgin daughter Zion?
For great as the sea is your downfall;
who can heal you?

The fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian army is in the Old Testament like the crucifixion of Jesus in the New Testament. It is an incident of horrific violence visited upon the helpless. The story is one of betrayal, or at least the betrayal of everything we had expected of God. 

The prophets had warned that it could happen, that God might punish his people for their infidelity. They had habitually and systematically neglected the widows, orphans, disabled and aliens. Their rulers had struck alliances with foreign rulers, compromising their own principles. They had regarded their religious duties with casual contempt. Judah, and its capital Jerusalem, seemed no more sacred or holy than any other capital or nation. If their religion was "Jewish" it made little practical difference in the way they conducted their affairs. 

Their prophets had warned them that their "exceptionalism" meant nothing in God's sight when their faith in God meant nothing to them. They had not listened. 

But did their infidelity deserve the rape, looting, burning and desecration that Jerusalem suffered? Why did the same helpless innocents who had suffered the neglect of their prosperous neighbors have to suffer the violence of foreign invasion? 

The prophet who wrote the Book of Lamentations does not echo the earlier prophets and their warnings. He does not say, "I told you so!" He simply records the grief of the city. He wonders with them, "Has God abandoned us?" and "Can there be a future?"

Tens of thousands of cities have fallen before invading armies in the history of the world. Even as I write I am hearing about the assault of another city, Fallujah in Iraq. Once again the innocent are suffering and there is little anyone can do to stop the violence. Caught between competing armies they can receive assistance only by unreliable airdrops of food, medicine and supplies. 

On Saturdays, we Catholics like to recall our devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The reading from Lamentations must remind us of Mary's suffering when Jesus was crucified. Saint Matthew suggests she is the New Jerusalem who reveals to the magi the newborn King of the Jews; they could not find him in King Herod's old city. 

But the new city, like the old one, is subject to grief. No sooner had the magi departed than Mary fled with Joseph and Jesus into exile. 

Christians are not, and should not expect to be, exempt from grief. We must thank God for the privilege of weeping with Mary, even as we thank God that she mourns with us.  

Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Lectionary: 587

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"No. He will be called John.”

As if John's birth by an elderly woman were not enough, his relatives and friends are amazed that he should be called John.

The name means, "Yahweh has shown favor." 

There is all kinds of significance here. First, let's not forget that those who live alone without connection to other people do not need a name. But there is no one like that. 

Every child born is given a name because, at least from the day of birth, a child lives in close contact with other people. Unlike many animals, the human baby is utterly dependent on caring parents. We cannot even turn over at birth, much less fend for ourselves in an indifferent, sometimes hostile world. 

We need people and that means we need names to be known by one another. 

We have formal names, bureaucratic names, titles and nicknames. Many children enjoy one particular name which is only used by very particular people. Children and adults often bestow particular names on one another. The name is the relationship. Beyond the relationship the name means nothing. 

Names can be used to honor or humiliate. From recent literature you may remember "Prisoner 24601," the name given to Jean Valjean in the musical, Les Miserables. If you remember that, you'll remember M. Valjean's refusal to respond to the insult. He would not be called a criminal or a prisoner. 

The name John has divine significance, as Saint Luke tells us. It means "Yahweh has shown favor." His mother Elizabeth insisted upon the name, although she had not been privy to the conversation between Angel Gabriel and Zechariah, because, as she said, "So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others."

This "favor" was both particular and general: particular to Elizabeth and general to everyone who would ever learn of the child and his mission. 

Because we know his name, we enjoy special privileges. I suppose lots of people know Jesus' name and bless themselves by it, but if they don't know John's name they surely know little about Jesus. Not knowing how "Yahweh has shown favor" through John the Baptist, they cannot be deeply invested in the Christian communion. 

That's why we have feast days like this, to announce God's favor and deepen our appreciation of it. 

This Solemnity also reminds us that we celebrated Christmas only six months ago, and will celebrate it again soon. In the heat of the summer it is good to remember how close Our God is to everyone who blesses himself by the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

Thursday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 374

Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’

There can be no more terrifying words in the scriptures than these, "I never knew you."

Greek philosophy brought to Christian theology an idea of the human being, that there is a substance known as human. It was called soul. However, other than being immortal, that substance had little to claim for itself.

In the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits Hades, he finds his old friend Achilles among the many dead warriors. Achilles remembers Odysseus, barely. His memories are fading; he will soon be like all the other souls with their useless immortal nature. They're like bats hanging on the ceiling of their caves, mindless and unaware for all eternity.

Jesus invites the Christian to escape the death of the individual soul and enter into the communion of his body, becoming a person in relation to other persons. A name will be given to that person in baptism. One cannot be known without a name.

At the end time we pray the Lord remembers our names. You remember that, at the cost of his life, Jesus went down to the graveyard and called, "Lazarus, come out." In that moment, the dead man remembered his name and that voice, the voice of a friend. He came stumbling out of the grave, back to life, back to communion.

Neither Greek nor American philosophy assures us of eternal life. That belongs to the Word of God.

Wednesday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 373

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing,
but underneath are ravenous wolves.
By their fruits you will know them.
Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?

The Gospel of Saint Matthew stands first among the four gospels not only because it's the longest of the synoptic gospels. It is also about the church., written with much experience of problems in the community.
That should come as no surprise; what's surprising is that so many people are surprised that the Church has many, many problems. As Cardinal Dolan has said, "You don't have to tell me about sin in the Church; I'm a church historian!"
We may have been forgiven all of our sins with the rite of Baptism but we have not been purged of every sinful tendency, nor have we created a community without problems.
Saint Matthew's gospel, written about 80 AD, addresses some of the problems encountered to date. In today's gospel, false prophets.
They are like ravenous wolves in sheep's clothing.
The expression has a colorful history following Saint Matthew's teaching, but I wonder if there is some precedent. Did thieves camouflage themselves as sheep to rob unsuspecting shepherds? A real wolf could not pull off such a trick but a clever enemy might. A small group of camouflaged soldiers might ambush an army camp, tossing off their sheepskins as they attacked.
In any case, all that glitters is not gold and not every preacher of the Gospel is a good person. Some are rogues with no scruples about exploiting the unwary; others sincerely believe their intentions are good. The latter are worse because their claims of innocence are so appealing. They really think they intend only good.
By their fruits you will know them.
Is this person unitive or divisive for the Church? Does this person polarize a community into friends and enemies? Does this person lead us toward union with Rome or away?
Regardless of their intentions, divisive persons are wolves in sheep clothing and should be avoided.
An "intervention" might help them to see how they generate such trouble; it might give them some insight and reveal another way of being.
There are people who expect to find enemies wherever they go and, because of that, do so. They need an inner healing which might come through wise spiritual direction. If they are willing to accept admonition and correction, they might be welcomed into our church of sinners.
Our response to them should be both compassionate and wise. First of all, we lay aside our naïve conviction that the church has been inoculated and is immune to false prophets. Secondly, we repent of that naiveté; it has no charm. Finally we welcome sinners among us even as we confess our sins to one another.
No community is perfect and if I ever joined one, it would not be perfect after I joined it. I expect to discover perfidy in the Church because it's in my heart. I cannot be surprised to find it among others, both shepherds and sheep.

Memorial of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, Religious

Lectionary: 372

Enter through the narrow gate;
for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction,
and those who enter through it are many.
How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life.
And those who find it are few.

I have never had the stomach for politics despite my fascination with it. I admire those who do. One time I attended a caucus in Minnesota. This would have been in the late 1980’s and the hot topic at the time was nuclear arms. 

The Soviet Union and the United States, armed to the teeth, were prepared to annihilate each other and every living thing on the planet. I think they disagreed on how to manage an economy; both parties agreed there should be a large middle class with very few wealthy or poor people but they could not agree on how to attain that Impossible Dream. 

Both parties also agreed that Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was the best way to insure peace. Neither nation would attack the other because it would be sheer madness. No one could win and everyone would die.

There were some in the United States – I among them -- who worried that MAD might fail; that the balance of power, like that preceding World War One, might collapse into annihilation.

So I attended a caucus in rural Minnesota with the intention of supporting a nuclear disarmament plank in the Democratic Party. I met some people who disagreed with me. To my astonishment, they believed in nuclear arms and MAD. I pointed to today’s scripture passage from 2 Kings as one example of superior military power collapsing before an inferior. 

War, it seems to me, of all human projects, has the least predictable outcomes. While a nation probably should prepare an adequate defense against hostility, to actually believe it is prepared for war or can withstand an attack is nonsense.

History books are thick with stories of smaller armies trouncing larger ones; of inferior weapons besting superior defenses. It’s easier to predict next year’s weather than to predict the outcome of tomorrow’s war; and going to war is always a crapshoot.

In today’s scripture passage, King Hezekiah was confronted by an overwhelming superior force, the Assyrians. (They came from today’s Syria. No surprise there!) He could surrender and die, or fight and die; which should he choose?

The Prophet Isaiah urged him to choose the narrow gate of reliance on God. Jerusalem would not fall to the enemy because, “The zeal of the LORD of hosts shall do this.”

As it turned out, the Assyrian invasion collapsed. The Divine Author says an angel attacked the camp. Historians would argue they suffered a plague. Armies, drinking unfamiliar water and encountering alien diseases, often “melt” as they march through foreign territory. They get sick; they die, soldiers desert and go home, their supply lines go dry, the political situation at home changes: anything can happen. A city with adequate defenses, defending its own territory and comfortably drinking its familiar water, often outlasts the enemy.

Jesus urges us to enter through the narrow gate. More often than not, we do not imagine the future as it actually unfolds. We might have had a general picture of it, but its details could not be foreseen; and our expectations were imprecise, at best. It is good to prepare but also to expect our preparations to fail. We need God to go with us. 

One thing is sure, to discount God’s presence, as did King Sennacherib, is to court disaster.

Monday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

“Stop judging, that you may not be judged.
For as you judge, so will you be judged,
and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye,
but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?

“For freedom Christ set us free!” Saint Paul declares in his Letter to the Galatians. (5:1) and the Lord especially would free us from the narcotic of judging others. Whatever pleasure we take in it is far outweighed by its dire consequences.

Judgments come so readily: “What kind of mother would let her son fall into the gorilla cage or be grabbed by an alligator?”; “Why do people keep guns in reach of children?”; "Those kids shouldn't be driving with other kids!"; “Why do young Muslim men and women come from every nation to join ISIS?”
We cannot imagine why “those people” do what they do. They must be evil or stupid. It seems that God makes bad people.
Recently we were told again, “His sun shines on the just and the unjust; his rain falls on the good and the bad.”
That is a radical notion of God. Despite the familiar, overpowering vision of the Lord who comes at the end of time to judge the nations, here is a story of God who does not judge, who bestows his benefits impartially on everyone.

How often are we confronted with unnerving stories of bad people showing extraordinary kindness and good people committing atrocities?
Christians understand freedom primarily as freedom from myself: my opinions, desires, fears, prejudices and, most importantly, my way of seeing things. I just don't need all that baggage. 

With prayer, daily examen of conscious, and frequent reality checks with real people (who are so unlike those fictitious others who live entirely in our heads), we can notice how often we judge others and, becoming aware, choose to be less opinionated. 

“For freedom Christ set us free so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.!”