Memorial of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Priest

"Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field."

I think we would all like to have an explanation of why there are criminal weeds flourishing in the Lord's wheat fields.
It's not supposed to happen anywhere but we are less surprised to see it in some places, generally the margins of society. Neighborhoods stricken with poverty, managed by absentee landlords, with many felons stripped of their voting rights: we expect shootings, robberies, etc. It's a shame old people have to live there but that's the way it goes. 
If a politician says that migrants, guilty of  a misdemeanor -- that is, they entered the country without a proper visa -- are "murderers and rapists" many people accept that without question. They expected as much of "those people." They're probably fleeing from the law at home.
If the same politician is suspected of crime, it only confirms a long held suspicion that politicians in general are dishonest and care only about their own interests. The electorate, given their own willingness to take ethical shortcuts, will support the politician who prefers their interests over others, regardless of fairness or justice.
But the same cynical population often hopes there are places where innocence flourishes. Hospitals, schools, professional sports, churches: these should be sanctuaries where corruption cannot enter. The patient, tethered to his bed by IVs, sometimes restrained and unconscious, should not suffer neglect or abuse. Toddlers in daycare and kindergarten deserve emotionally, physically safe environments. Professional athletes represent our love of the game. If they play for money they should at least play by the rules. We need them to represent our law-abiding ethos.
And then there's the Church. Mostly volunteers, supported almost entirely by donations. Aspiring leaders know from the outset they will never secure the salaries of lawyers and brain surgeons. They set out to serve the Lord. He is their portion and their cup! Older people who enter the ministry should have made their pile already. They're not in it for the money. 
Strangers who enter a church for whatever reason should find welcome, security and friendship. There they must be treated with godly kindness. 
But there are weeds amid the wheat. They might not aspire to greed, though some do. Their tastes usually run to the other six: pride, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and (especially) sloth​. Less spectacular, perhaps, but nonetheless damaging to the Lord's mission. 
In this parable Jesus teaches us to avoid judgment. Let the sinners remain among us lest we tear out the innocent as well as the guilty. We've seen abrupt, violent spasms of righteousness before: the French Terror, Stalin's purges in Russia, McCarthyism in America, and Pol Pot's massacres in Cambodia. 
That may be the point of Noah's Flood. The Lord wiped the Earth clean of all sinners, sparing only one apparently righteous family, Noah and his son's. But Noah by his drunkenness and Ham by his filial disrespect picked up where the "liquidated" had left off. The Deluge failed. 
So the Lord began a new, more effective way of saving humankind, beginning with the Call of Abraham and Sarah and climaxing with the Resurrection of Jesus. 
Both stories and many like it remind us that "all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God." For there is no distinction of saints and sinners, try as we will to separate and isolate the deplorables. As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us​." We pray that the Lord will stay his punishing hand. for his mercies are renewed each day.

Monday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time

All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables.
He spoke to them only in parables,
to fulfill what had been said through the prophet:
I will open my mouth in parables,
I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation 
of the world.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis writes:
(43.) It is not easy to grasp the truth that we have received from the Lord. And it is even more difficult to express it. So we cannot claim that our way of understanding this truth authorizes us to exercise a strict supervision over others’ lives. Here I would note that in the Church there legitimately coexist different ways of interpreting many aspects of doctrine and Christian life; in their variety, they “help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word”.

That's why Jesus spoke in parables; that's why Jeremiah walked around in public in rotting underwear. Some things cannot be explained in so many words. Indeed, if there are not infinite interpretations of God's word, there are as many interpretations as there are people to receive it.
Often in conversation with my friend John he will stop me in my tracks with a question that seems ridiculous and totally irrelevant, and I realize his mind does not function as mine does. We speak the same language, grew up in the same city, and were educated in the same school but we operate on different wave lengths. Whatever he hears me saying seems not closely related to my understanding. I'm on the golf course and he's in the football stadium. So I back up and start over. Or, more often, decide it's not that important.
Jesus announced in parables what had "lain hidden from the foundation of the world," and remains hidden to many people. The allusion is to gems, those peculiar rocks formed by the explosion of a distant, long-dead star, that turn up in various parts of our world. But do you need to recognize that "mental link" to gemstones to understand the teaching?
The Holy Father wrote the above in his essay about Gnosticism, a pre-Christian philosophy that still threatens to undermine the Gospel. Gnostics believe they "own" certain knowledge which assures them of their personal salvation. During the first century, Gnostics formed secret societies to share their mysteries. These clandestine groups still exist; you may join one if you've got the dough-re-mi. Because the apostles announced a gospel "hidden since the foundation of the world," people supposed they were Gnostics.
But practical experience tells us a master's degree or PHD in theology is no assurance of salvation. As Pope Francis says,
A dangerous confusion can arise. We can think that because we know something, or are able to explain it in certain terms, we are already saints, perfect and better than the “ignorant masses”. Saint John Paul II warned of the temptation on the part of those in the Church who are more highly educated “to feel somehow superior to other members of the faithful”.[41] In point of fact, what we think we know should always motivate us to respond more fully to God’s love. Indeed, “you learn so as to live: theology and holiness are inseparable”
If your learning does not drive you to works of mercy, it means nothing. Saint Paul explained that a long time ago:
And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
Pope Francis is not writing in a vacuum. There are political forces in the Church that would shore up their Catholic privilege with special doctrines. They believe they have the understanding that everyone else should have; and those who don't (i.e. Protestants) must remain outside. One group​ has effectively separated themselves from the Church and is waiting for the rest of us to come around to their point of view. Until then they remain partly-outside and partly-inside in their smug self-assurance.
In his ratty underwear Jeremiah taunted the bigots of his time. Their corruption was obvious to everyone but themselves; their privilege would collapse with the city walls when the Babylonian army arrived. Better to show mercy now and risk the loss of this world's treasure, than to squander your opportunity for salvation.

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

When Jesus raised his eyes
and saw that a large crowd was coming to him,
he said to Philip,
"Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?"
He said this to test him,
because he himself knew what he was going to do.

Recently I pointed to the humorous stories which appear at the beginning and end of Saint John's Gospel. Today's passage in the middle of the same gospel also sparkles with comedy. The Trickster knows what he will do but he mischievously asks Philip, ""Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?"
Jesus' feeding of the large crowd in the wilderness has the same happy, carefree mood of the Wedding Feast at Cana and Doubting Thomas. It's a lovely gospel to hear in July, during a season of long evenings and summer vacations, when children (and some adults) lie in the grass and watch the clouds drift by, when the first fruits of the season are already coming in and the harvest of fall is promising. We can be forgiven if we hope the news cycle will hush up as politicians go on vacation and the dog days amble past.
Saint John tells us, "The Jewish feast of Passover was near." Passover is to the Jews like Christmas is to Christians, a huge event with many layers of meaning and memory. Just to say the word evokes feelings of nostalgia and hope. Song, smells, taste and sensations come to mind; every conversation or accidental encounter is touched with a hint of the feast. Nothing bad can happen during the Passover. Even enemies are hailed with friendly holiday greetings during the festive days.
So this incident of John 6 did not and could not happen at any time of year; it had to be Passover when Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. We're remembering Exodus and the forty-year honeymoon of God and his people in the Sinai Desert. The Lord provided water from a rock, bread from the dew and flocks of birds from the sky. Their clothes never tattered; their shoes never wore out.
This banquet in the wilderness is described as a sign not a miracle -- "When the people saw the sign he had done" -- so we should not misconstrue it as Jesus' demonstration of power. Twentieth century preachers, eager to show that Jesus is God, would use these "stranger-than-science miracles" as proof of Jesus' divinity. That misses the point.
Jesus fed the people in the wilderness as the Lord had fed the exiles in Sinai. It was an act of kindness and generosity typical of our God, and a further proof -- if we must use the word -- of God's mercy.
The people demonstrate a partial understanding when they conclude, "This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world." The Passover and the superabundance of food has aroused their memory of an ancient promise​ made to Moses, found in the Book of Deuteronomy:
A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kindred; that is the one to whom you shall listen.
After Jesus' death and resurrection this banquet in the wilderness, with its aura of an unending holiday, blossomed into the Eucharist. John 6 establishes the connections between the one incident and our daily ceremony. The Catholic never feels so close to heaven as when we celebrate the Mass. The Lord has invited us, and the Spirit has drawn us, to the Table which God has prepared for us. We need to bring only an appetite for the Word.
Unlike the synoptic gospels which say that Jesus "gave the fish to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds," John says that  Jesus "distributed them to those who were reclining." The disciples do not act as mediators in this story, but Jesus personally gives each man and woman "also as much of the fish as they wanted."
It takes nothing from the sacramental ministry of the church to remind us that Jesus personally addresses every one of us. He calls each one by name even as he saw Nathaniel under the fig tree, called Lazarus from the grave, and commissioned the beloved disciple to "Behold your mother." No one should hide from his gaze in the crowd of his disciples, supposing that the Lord might let anyone slip past him. Although he certainly heals people by the thousand as they come to him from every direction, he also personally attends to every woman and man.
The extraordinary abundance which flows from the boy's donation of "five barley loaves and two fish" assures us of God's superabundant generosity. If your god is so busy managing the universe and the affairs of the world that he has no time for you, your god is too small. Our God, the Father of Jesus knows and cares intensely for each one of us. "His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches over me."
It is good to remember this carefree, summer picnic that Jesus took with his disciples and friends, and the wit of our Savior as he queried the slow-witted Philip. 

Saturday of the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 400

Put not your trust in the deceitful words: 
"This is the temple of the LORD! The temple of the LORD! The temple of the LORD!"
Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with his neighbor; if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place, or follow strange gods to your own harm, will I remain with you in this place, in the land I gave your fathers long ago and forever. 

"Once more, with feeling!" the patient conductor urges her chorale. 
"Let's all stand up and sing!" the minister begs his congregation. 
"If you're as happy as you say you are, let your face know it!" the parent advises the grumpy teenager. 
We want people to be sincere whether they're attending religious ceremonies, football games, or Hump Day Wednesday. "C'mon, people, let's see a little life here!" 
We might suppose Jeremiah had the same complaint about his neighbors in the temple. They insisted they believed in God's presence in the temple; they dutifully contributed sheep, oxen and turtle doves for the holocausts and sin offerings. But they did so without sincerity, without feeling. They did it pro forma
But that was not Jeremiah's complaint. He saw that their worship  of a just and merciful God did not create a just and merciful people. They might have shouted their alleluias and amens but they still oppressed the resident alien, the orphan and the widow. 
Jeremiah might say to Americans today, Put not your trust in the deceitful words: 
"This is the American Flag! The American Flag! The American Flag! But If you welcome the alien, shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, care for the sick, educate the ignorant, and care for the least among you, the Lord will remain with you in this place, in the land He gave your fathers long ago and forever.

Friday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 399

They will in those days no longer say,
"The ark of the covenant of the LORD!"
They will no longer think of it, or remember it, or miss it, or make another.

Jeremiah's prophecy must have aroused great fear among the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Every religious structure in Jerusalem, from the temple to the trappings and vestments to the rituals and priestly assignments was built around the Ark of the Covenant. Without it their religion would disappear; or so they must have believed.
The Ark was comparable in Judah to the Blessed Sacrament in Catholicism. We cannot and would not want to imagine faith without it.
History changed all that. Jerusalem was conquered; the temple, razed; and the ark disappeared. 2 Maccabees says that Jeremiah personally oversaw its removal to hidden cave somewhere in the mountains, saying,
“The place is to remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows them mercy.
But 2 Maccabees was written centuries later and the story is as mythical as Spielberg's movie about it. The conquering Babylonian army probably destroyed the old wooden box and its clay tablets with careless contempt as they collected the temple's gold and silver vessels. Jeremiah's prediction in 2 Maccabees concerns God's promise of gathering his people and showing them mercy, not the whereabouts of an old relic.
Jeremiah also saw the end of a major formative era for Judaism. Jews dispersed to Africa, Asia and Europe; there would be no nation of Israel until 1948; but by then the religion had evolved. It is no longer a state religion, upholding a king and his government. This was, in part, Jeremiah's doing as he encouraged the refugees to settle wherever they landed. He wrote:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their fruits. Take wives and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters. Increase there; do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the LORD, for upon its welfare your own depends. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not be deceived by the prophets and diviners who are among you; do not listen to those among you who dream dreams, for they prophesy lies to you in my name; I did not send them.
The Jews should be blessings to their new homelands as immigrants are to the United States. Catholics in the United States are also sent as a blessing to this country, to support its government by their familial, religious and civic duties; even to supporting its military defense, if not its aggression.
We should never forget our "homeland" -- which is not here. We are sojourners passing through, on our way to that mysterious kingdom which God has promised to his people. We will need no weapons in that home for the Lord will be our defense; nor will we need to store up provisions for tomorrow. There will be no more sorrow, nor grief. For the Lord will be our comfort.
Amid overwhelming tragedy, Jeremiah taught his people to expect a glorious future. We have seen that future even more clearly in the resurrection of Jesus and the communion of the saints.

Memorial of Saints Joachim and Anne, Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary

But blessed are your eyes, because they see,
and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it."

Jesus' grateful words about your eyes and ears fit this mid-summer feast of his grandparents, Joachim and Anne.  Canonical scripture tells us nothing about Mary's parents; their names appear in a second century narrative which the Church did not accept as canonical. But it's not unlikely that Jesus' maternal grandparents were named Joachim and Anne (or Hannah.) Not everything that is remembered by families and neighbors appears in print. Even "the first draft of history," the news, overlooks many details in their rush to publish. We can suppose that Joachim and Anne were blessed to see Mary's only son.
In the VA hospital, I often see the light go on in the eyes of patients when I ask about grandchildren. They might say, "Grandchildren are so much fun; I should have had them first." 
"I'll pray for you, Papaw." said one little three-year-old as the Veteran prepared for surgery. Another Veteran struggled and survived to see his granddaughter graduate from high school. Another gentleman watches and cares for the infants while his daughter and granddaughter are at work. A fourth has survived several years longer that his doctor's expectations because his son and daughter-in-law abandoned their children and left them with him. 
When I give Veterans a rosary they often remark that their grandmothers were very religious and prayed continually. They learned the Our Father and Hail Mary from their grandparents, sometimes during their summers at the farm. If the faith is passed from one century to the next, it's generations of grandparents, not parents, who make it happen. They "leapfrog" over their children -- sometimes despite their children -- to keep the Gospel alive.
Many years ago  an American historian of religion noted, "The children try to remember what their parents tried to forget." The duty of evangelizing the next generation often falls to the grandparents. Not the nuns, nor the priests, nor the catechists. The grandparents.
"This is a powerful summons to all of us." Pope Francis writes in his apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exultate
"You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission. Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that he gives you. Always ask the Spirit what Jesus expects from you at every moment of your life and in every decision you must make, so as to discern its place in the mission you have received. Allow the Spirit to forge in you the personal mystery that can reflect Jesus Christ in today’s world.
Hopefully, every Christian's life is a gospel -- a story of life, death and resurrection. We experience tragedy, grief and resurgent hope. We face frustration, disappointment and renewed courage. The Spirit finds us in the valley of death, blows across our dried bones, and restores us to life.
"Can these bones live?" our grandchildren ask and -- fifty years later -- they realize our faith lives on in them. We owe it to our grandchildren to tell them the Gospels of our lives. They should know how the Lord carried us through hard times and shone in dark times. We too were young people, lost, bewildered and blind but the ageless, eternal God has never abandoned us. You can be certain that Jesus delighted to know the gospel of Joachim and Anne.

Feast of Saint James, Apostle

We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.

Fifty years ago today the Vatican issued the encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae​. It might have been called "a treasure in earthen vessels"; a title to fit the document, the doctrine and its subject, the gift of life. 
The controversy no longer rages in Catholic chanceries, parishes and classrooms, but neither has it gone away. Since that time many Catholics have chosen to ignore the teaching; two generations of Catholic children have grown up largely ignorant of it; and some married couples, a select few, choose to live by its rigorous discipline.
The third group describes a marital vision of great sensitivity and practical awareness. Husband and wife together pay attention to, and assume responsibility for, the natural, reproductive cycles of her body. They are aware of the subtle changes of temperature and mood throughout each cycle, and not only during certain phases. These cyclic changes affect and may be honored in both of them; and, as their children enter puberty, their sons and daughters also practice deeper awareness of our cyclic rhythms.
Though the human body, like all organisms, is never entirely predictable, a married couple who practice "Natural Family Planning" decide as a couple when to have a child. Disciplined by the practice of prayerful conversation, realizing that God the Father is always a third partner in their marriage, and alert to the guidance of God's Holy Spirit, they fulfill their vow to receive children as God chooses give them children. Their first concern is not their own desire to have children; they neither "make babies" nor prohibit their conception. They recognize God as the giver of life and make themselves available as prospective parents.
Immersed as I have been in spiritual conversations these past fifty years, I have been struck by the revulsion many people feel toward the word, control. "He's a very controlling person!" is not high praise. Nor is, "She's a control freak." And yet many of the same people assiduously practice birth control with multiple layers of "child-proof" systems. 
They practice these methods relentlessly and encourage others to do so. Many children, arriving at adolescence, are immediately initiated into controlling their body, lest something natural occur. Eventually the culture at large forgets that sexuality concerns reproduction, not one's personal satisfaction, amusement or aerobic exercise.    
I knew a woman who raised goats. Someone asked her when her newest young goat would give milk. She explained that the kid would  have to mature, be impregnated, give birth after a few months of gestation, and begin suckling her young before she would produce goat's milk. "Oh," said the woman, "I didn't think of that." Americans drink billions of gallons of milk every year and rarely think of the sexual processes that produce milk; be they of cows, goats or women.
The United States recently threatened Uruguay with cutting off military aid for encouraging their mothers to breast feed their children. If there is money to be made, American business prefers baby formula to mothers' milk. The world of economics, eager to "subdue and have dominion​" over the human body as well as the Earth, promises freedom from every constraint, and dismisses the encyclical as irrelevant. But the consequences for ignoring its invitation to earthly life are painful and inexorable. There are natural forces around and within us beyond our reckoning. 
Humanae Vitae remains as a voice in the wilderness, a distant, fading reminder that the human being is a creature of earth, subject to its cycles and blessed by its fertility. 

Tuesday of the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance;
Who does not persist in anger forever,
but delights rather in clemency,
And will again have compassion on us,
treading underfoot our guilt?

King David was  overwhelmed with gratitude and humility when Nathan the Prophet conveyed God's promise that David's "house" would stand forever. A thousand years before Christ, he could not imagine the tumult, turmoil, uprooting and estrangement that would follow as Jerusalem would be conquered and its people dispersed. He probably supposed as we do that the future will be pretty much like the present; a young "King David the Umpteenth" will occupy the same throne in the same palace in Jerusalem a thousand years from now!
Whatever he expected he did get something right when he prayed,
Great are you, Lord GOD! There is no one like you, no God but you, as we have always heard.
What other nation on earth is there like your people Israel?

I ​ hear an echo of David's "Great are you Lord God" in today's reading from Micah: "Who is there like you?"
Sometime later King David would violate God's blessing by his wanton abuse of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah; and he would hear a terrible curse leveled against the same "house" which he was founding:
Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.
And yet he would remember God's mercy and immediately confess his sin when Nathan confronted him,
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan answered David: “For his part, the Lord has removed your sin. You shall not die....

I see David as the great progenitor of penance. Where Abraham and Moses remained faithful in their face-to-face relationship with the Lord, David sinned egregiously -- and repented with wholehearted confidence in God.  
David was a warrior and he knew God as a warrior, a "battle buddy." They had fought together and were bonded by the scalding memories of horrific violence. David knew his Champion would never abandon him. Nor would he overlook his sins. Friends don't idolize or idealize their friends; certainly God would not ignore David's crimes. If anyone should have had a millstone around his neck and cast into the sea it was David, but the Lord is faithful.
He does not persist in anger forever. He delights rather in clemency, and will again have compassion on us, treading underfoot our guilt.
I cannot ignore the parallels with Jesus, but in this case David is the apostles, Peter and Judas; and Uriah is Jesus. The disciples abandoned the Lord; Peter died him and Judas betrayed him. David's betrayal is shocking especially because Uriah was David's faithful soldier, practicing the very piety David had always insisted upon. His soldiers must have put two and two together. Returning to Jerusalem, they saw the lovely, young widow ensconced in the King's palace. That senseless foray against the well-defended Rabbah and the waste of a good soldier suddenly made sense. 
When we consider the mercy of God we should ponder the depths of our sin. I don't believe God can simply ignore sins as if they never happened. Stephen Daedalus would complain, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." but it doesn't disappear because we wake up, move on or move away. Like the cross, the history of sin from Eden to Auschwitz to Armageddon must be raised up, purified and glorified with the Lord himself.
Despite David's remorse and God's forgiveness, purification did not come easily for David. The ghost of Uriah remained in the royal palace with Bathsheba while his soldiers winked knowingly at each other. The child of their adultery died an infant. David's favored son, Absalom rebelled, raised an army and drove the king from the city. Civil war is the worst kind of war and the fighting of brother against brother was savage. David's remorse staggered him when Absalom was killed in the field.
For all his sins, David is the great progenitor of penance. We study his life and writings, especially the 51st and 130th psalms, to understand the sacrament, virtue and practice we call penance. We begin each Mass with Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy. We dare not enter God's presence without acknowledging our guilt. With David and a host of sinners we are reassured of welcome for the Lord does not persist in anger forever, he delights rather in clemency.

You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins;
You will show faithfulness to Jacob, and grace to Abraham,
As you have sworn to our fathers from days of old.

Monday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

O my people, what have I done to you,
or how have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
from the place of slavery I released you;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

Today's first reading from the Prophet Micah sounds like a difficult conversation between two weary, uncomprehending lovers. They just don't understand each other.
"What have I done to you?" asks the Lord, "or how have I wearied you?"
And the people reply, as if talking to themselves, "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow before God most high?"
The resolution is often cited out of context, "You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God."
In context we still hear the sounds of weariness and hopelessness of God's voice in the word only. It's really not difficult! Will they ever get it?
As an "administrator of grace" I sometimes experience that weary frustration when an intoxicated Veteran returns to the hospital for the umpteenth time. He insists he is praying all the time. Why doesn't God hear his voice? He says he is losing his faith!
I tell him his faith is in alcohol; he has never believed in God.
He cannot find that switch of surrender in his heart that will open the channel for God's healing mercy. He cannot shed the burden of himself to take up the easier yoke and the lighter burden of the Lord.
His frustration sounds much like that which Micah hears from his people, "
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, 
with calves a year old? 
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, 
with myriad streams of oil? 
Shall I give my first-born for my crime, 
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 
"What do you want?" he asks.
"I want your heart!" is the obvious reply which is not at all obvious.
And so it goes into the dark night as the lovers quarrel.
That same weariness appears in today's gospel: "Some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Jesus, 'Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.'"
"No sign will be given." he says, "except the sign of Jonah" -- which is something of a joke. What does the story of Jonah's three day sojourn in the belly of a whale have to do with anything? Or the Queen of Sheba's visit to Abraham?
No sign will appear to those who cannot see the sign that is right there in front of them, that is as plain as the nose on your face.
I think it helps to admit we just can't see in darkness. Perhaps it helps to understand we'll never understand.
The unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing assured his disciples, God cannot resist the call of the helpless and the hopeless.
"I am sorry, Lord. I just don't understand. But I do love you."
As our responsorial psalm says, "He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me; and to him that goes the right way I will show the salvation of God.”

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

He said to them,
“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”
People were coming and going in great numbers,
and they had no opportunity even to eat.

During my year of supervised ministry, as a deacon, I asked a priest, "When do we get a break?" He replied, "A break is doing different kind of work."
But I was already working as assistant pastor, assistant retreat director and director of religious education in the parish, plus a few other chores. Many years later, when the VA offered me a "full time" job of only forty hours a week, I grabbed it. Forty hours is practically retirement for a priest.

"Rest a while!" Jesus says.
Is that like a command?

Someone remarked recently that with new technologies people will need to work only twenty hours a week. "On which planet is that?" I wondered. New technologies permit fewer people to work fifty hours a week while many more people suffer full time unemployment. Americans would rather despise the unemployed than work fewer hours. It's called the Protestant work ethic,​ the obsessive belief that one is saved by continuous, meaningful and compensated work, rather than by the saving blood of Jesus.
How do I justify my existence? Or the right to eat, sleep, breathe or stink? By work.
May I be tired sometimes? Only if you've worked hard enough to deserve it.
"Rest a while!" Jesus says.
Do I have to?

For he is our peace, he who made both one
and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh,
abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims,
that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two,
thus establishing peace,
and might reconcile both with God,
in one body, through the cross,
putting that enmity to death by it.

We erect and maintain innumerable dividing walls, all in an effort to distance ourselves from the pathetic human beings around us. "Thank God I am not like the rest of men. I work for a living!" we say, to reassure ourselves that, despite our feelings of inadequacy, fear and helplessness, we're still somewhat salvageable. "If my work doesn't save me then nobody is saved!" we hope.
But the Lord comes to us in all meekness -- "riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey" -- and encourages us to rest a while.
"Can one be saved through rest?" we ask.
"I don't think so!" we answer.

"For he is our peace."
Eventually we do break down. Depression, alcoholism, cancer, heart problems, or whatever: the human being is peculiarly vulnerable to many illnesses and disabilities. Unlike other animals, we choose life styles that cause disease. One by one we fall back on each other for support. Even the wealthy must rely on underpaid health care workers sooner or later; often the very migrants they fought against. Barriers break down; things fall apart.

We're all in this together, a vast crowd, like sheep without a shepherd. His heart is moved with pity by our desperate efforts to save ourselves. We're like cars stuck in mud, our wheels spinning furiously; or dinosaurs mired in tar pits, descending helplessly into extinction.
....for they were like sheep without a shepherd;
and he began to teach them many things.

Saturday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 394

Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved in whom I delight;
I shall place my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

Today's gospel recounts the longest direct Old Testament quotation in the Saint Matthew's gospel; and, predictably, it's one of the "servant songs" from Isaiah. Although the message is a happy announcement about the coming Messiah, the setting is gloomy as we find Jesus retreating from hostile enemies into the wilderness. 
Someday I should check this out with a scripture scholar, but it seems to me that the Word of God, as found in both Testaments, is always a minority protest against a dominant, oppressive majority. Ordinarily, we suppose faithful Jews had control of the levers of power at least during King David's long reign, and that the ruling establishment in Jerusalem faithfully obeyed the Law's ethical and religious prescriptions for some time after David died. 
If that was true, I don't find it in the tone of these writings. A plaintive worry accompanies the law, prophets, wisdom writings and psalms most of the time. 
This should not surprise one who studies the history of American Utopian societies. From Plymouth Rock westward the Puritan preachers and elders grumbled that their towns and villages were not sufficiently observant or devout. American Protestant churches are also bedeviled with splits and factions as members quarrel with each other, accusing one another of laxity and heresy. 
Today the Catholic Church in the United States also suffers misgivings as not every Catholic is stridently anti-abortion, and few married Catholics observe the proscription against birth control. I have met some Catholics who call themselves "orthodox" without reference to Eastern Catholicism. They say their teaching is ortho-dox, meaning "right teaching." With that nomenclature they would separate themselves from the suspect majority. Meanwhile the unchurched majority expects orthopraxis -- right action -- from the churches and wonder why it's not forthcoming. 
Amid all this distress we follow Jesus into the wilderness with the poor, lame, blind, possessed and disabled. We look to him for healing, comfort, guidance and reassurance. We don't know where he is leading us; through what narrow passes, straits and cataracts, over which unbounded seas or open plains. But we believe in him and our hearts are not troubled. 

Friday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 393

Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath
the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath
and are innocent?
I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.
If you knew what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
you would not have condemned these innocent men.
For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath."

Despite the their understanding of a "wall" between religious and secular affairs, many Americans suppose that breaking the law is a sin; and conversely, if it's not against the law it's not a sin. This is at least part of the Catholic resistance to divorce, abortion and gay marriage. When the Supreme Court describes them as "rights," and they are widely accepted as normal, it's very difficult to insist they are sinful. I suppose this is the logic people use to oppose "illegal immigration." But human beings have been moving about the Earth since they first appeared in Africa. Clever and highly adaptable to every sort of climate, from polar cold to equatorial heat, from swamps, plains, deserts, and valleys to mountains, human beings move readily to safer, more promising locales where they might raise their children and pass their final years in peace. 
Perhaps it is predictable that our Christian religion with its Jewish roots, teaches us to welcome immigrants even when we fear shortages. Our history begins with migrations, especially the Exodus from Egypt and the Jewish diaspora. The Christmas story echoes those events with the Holy Family's escape into Egypt; and their return, not to Bethlehem but to Nazareth. 
And then Jesus sends us to make disciples of all nations, a commission to migrate! It's in our spiritual genes. When I had the chance to speak to a Catholic congregation in Ireland I thanked them for sending their sons and daughters, both clerical and lay to America. They built our Church despite the opposition of American nativists. (Louisvillian Catholics remember the anti-Irish, Know-nothing riots.) 
Nativists will always oppose migrants; and, like the Pharisees, they'll appeal to their religious beliefs for support. That comes with the concupiscence of original sin. That's no surprise. 
But their Bible verses will always be trumped by Jesus' word: I desire mercy! 
Illegal immigration might be a sin when it's not necessary, as some people and corporations migrate to avoid paying taxes. But the poor and oppressed will always find Jesus, Mary and Joseph travelling with them. 

Thursday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 392

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."

I was on retreat last September when I heard the retreat director read the above verses to the friars gathered in chapel. I have read those words so many times to patients in the hospital, I now just recite them. I was taken aback when I heard them read to me. On retreat I am permitted to think that I, too, labor and am burdened; and that the Lord might give me rest. I, too, can learn from him and find rest in carrying his yoke and burden, which are so much lighter than the ones I fashion for myself.

In the context of Saint Matthew's gospel, the "yoke and burden" that we carry are Pharisaic interpretations of the Law of Moses. The Pharisees saw themselves as devout men living under Roman occupation but striving nonetheless to "be holy as I am holy." If they successfully observed every jot and tittle of the Law they might not suffer God's wrath and his punishing arm, the Roman soldiers.
But like all occupation armies, the Roman soldiers were a fickle lot. They didn't mind punishing Jews for any reason and no reason. The Pharisees desperately tried to keep themselves scrupulously clean and make sure everyone else did too! They were like children living with alcoholic parents in a dysfunctional household. But their enforcement of the Law was as emotionally and spiritually brutal as the Roman occupation.
Ireland experienced a similar oppression when the Catholic clergy desperately tried to protect their hapless faithful from the arbitrary violence of English overlords. That misery was enhanced by a Jansenist spirituality which spread like a disease out of France. (Catholic seminaries were closed in Ireland, candidates for the priesthood had to study in France.)
Today, given our widespread experience of violence in the home -- due to insanity, alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty, abortion, divorce, etc -- many people grow up heavily burdened with the fear of a violent, arbitrary, all-powerful, all-seeing god. Their pantheon of gods is more Greek than Christian although they insist they are "Christian."  (Perhaps the name, like a talisman, will protect them.)
Jesus' primary aim is to relieve our distress;
"For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him." 
His salvation, however, does not come cheap. It costs him and it costs us. His mercy comes as both invitation and warning:
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:16-17)

Those who cling to the yokes and burdens they have fashioned for themselves, refusing to consider or accept his burden, have "already been condemned." This is where "Pharisees" -- Jewish and Christian, ancient and modern -- despite their effort. hard work and ostensibly good intentions, lose the way.
To accept his yoke of discipleship, which is freedom, we must die to ourselves. Everything we thought we knew is thrown into confusion; and everything we own or wish to own is placed on the altar of sacrifice. We enter the via negativa
Choosing freedom entails avoiding those choices that restrict freedom. Saint Francis took up that pursuit when, on the road to another war, a midnight voice told him to back to Assisi and wait. "You'll be told what to do." Several years would pass before another revelation would show him the path of evangelical poverty. 
Very often our "sinful fallen nature" prefers the bad stuff. Death to self entails that controlling, restricting discipline which is both wise and healthy. It recognizes the danger of short-term gains and the wisdom of delayed gratification. Cultivating prayer, it learns to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd even in the darkness of indecision.  It is eager to move only when the Spirit of God says "Move!" 
Recently I had what seemed like a good idea. I sat on it for several days thinking how it might work out. And then, quite suddenly, I knew it was a "Bad idea!" The Spirit spoke very clearly. Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Now I wonder, "What was I thinking?"

I came out of that retreat with the reminder that I was not sent to save the world, nor any part of the world, nor even myself. I can do my part, and let the Lord do his.