For Sunday Liturgies and Feasts
Homilies for September 2012
Purpose: To apply the terms, “clean” and “unclean,” repeated throughout the Old and New Testaments, to the Christian life.
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 2, 2012
Readings: Dt 4:1-2, 6-8 • Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27 • Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Jesus told the crowd: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person, but the things that come out from within are what defile.” We may want to question Jesus as his disciples did. We might begin questioning him about bacteria and parasites—or, if we take his words in a more spiritual sense—then, we should ask about bad entertainment full of violence and sex. It is absolutely necessary for a Christian to keep custody of their eyes and ears. Those who try to follow Christ, and then watch a lot of popular entertainment, deceive themselves.
What are we to think? Was our Lord so naïve? Not at all! Jesus is not concerning himself now with questions of basic hygiene, nor even whether anything that we put into our bodies or minds is good or bad for us. The word he uses here, that is translated as “defile,” is a very technical word for the Jews, referencing “uncleanness.” Certain illnesses made a person unclean. Shrimp and pork were unclean. We should not confuse “unclean” with either being sinful or dirty. It would be similar to being served a spider for dinner. There is no logical reason why a spider is a worse animal to eat than a pig, but I do not want it. I could not eat it. It is “unclean” to me.
The laws on uncleanness are developed very early in the Old Testament, and they built on cultural ideas of what is disgusting or not. These ideas existed long before the law. God used disgust, which is natural to us humans, to teach his people about what is good and bad. The laws of the Old Testament seem to be handed on to Moses directly from the Lord, but they are not perfect expressions of God’s will. Jesus admits as much when he explains why the law about divorce no longer applies. In the Mosaic law, a man must give his wife a bill of divorce. This was because men did, in reality, divorce their wives. But, it was better that there be some structure for the sake of the woman, rather than just leaving her abandoned without the freedom to seek a new husband. If there is going to be divorce, then the men ought to give their wives bills of divorce. Of course, Jesus taught that there really should not be divorce at all.
So there is truth, but then there are also deeper truths. The law is true, but Jesus revealed deeper truths that make some parts of the law inapplicable today. Throughout the early books of the Bible, there is constant reference to what is “clean,” and what is “unclean.” Some of it makes sense to us: why a sick person or a moldy shirt would be “unclean.” Some of it does not: why a woman, after giving birth, is “unclean” for one week if it is a boy, and two weeks if it is a girl. But then, as the Old Testament progresses, over the next thousand years, we begin to see references to a “clean heart,” which begins to spiritualize the concept. People are invited to look within themselves and see whether they find anything disgusting in their hearts. So the law is indeed “wise and intelligent,” as Moses said, in the first reading. It is, indeed, just and worthy of being observed carefully. It takes account of where the people are, while leading them to a new level of understanding, over many generations. How could anyone find fault with a law when they are judging that very law by the standards that developed over time?
Jesus completes this development in the Gospel today. True cleanliness does not come from hand washing before every meal. True, “cleanliness” can be compared to a soul completely dedicated to God. If Jesus were here now, giving us his teaching in a 21st century context, he might say it this way:“What do you find disgusting? That man over there, who hasn’t showered this month, who’s picking his nose as he digs through the dumpster behind McDonald’s looking for half-eaten food? Do you want to know what’s really disgusting? How about: evil thoughts, unchaste behavior, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.”
So, St. James says in the second reading today that being faithful to religion, pure and undefiled, means caring for the weak, and keeping yourself unstained by the world. This is a great distance from a purity that was concerned with keeping different fabrics separated, or cleanliness that involved ritual washing of hands, and not eating pork. According to St. James, the most unclean thing, the most repulsive act, is to hear the words of the Gospel, and then fail to put them into practice. What is more disgusting than a dead and rotting thing? The more precious it was to us, the more repulsive it is to see it dead and rotting. What is more precious than the Christian faith? Without constant exercise, it becomes dead, decayed, and disgusting.
We want to keep our faith alive. Have you ever seen someone in whom the faith is so alive and active that they amaze you? How much more should the words of Moses apply to us Christians today! He said that the Lord God was close to the Hebrews. But, God is closer to us: he dwells within our hearts. Moses said that the other nations should look at Israel and say: “This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.” How much more should other people look at us and say: “Those Christians are so loving and so alive! I want what they have!”
Since “unclean” means “repulsive,” “clean” means the opposite: “attractive”. If our religion were undefiled, it would be so attractive that the whole world would join. People leave the Church because they see uncleanness in it. People join the Church because they see something attractive. We are very limited in our ability to eliminate all the uncleanness in the Church, all the hypocrisy and evil-doing. However, we are unlimited in our ability to become something clean of all that, something attractive. How many people joined the Church just because they saw Blessed Teresa of Calcutta? How many people joined the Church just because they saw St. Francis of Assisi? Or even just heard stories about him 800 years later? A person like that is far more convincing than any argument or slogan. What would happen if we, you and I, decided today to live undefiled lives, to become saints? We would change the world.
Purpose: To consider how the Church can remain true to the mission of Jesus Christ, and his preferential care for the poor and weak, when we need money and power to build up the structure that cares for them.
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 9, 2012
Readings: Is 35:4-7a • Jas 2:1-5 • Mk 7:31-37
There is a strong contrast between the Gospel and the second reading today. In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals a deaf man by groaning, his eyes raised toward heaven. In the second reading from the letter of St. James, the apostle warns us about making distinctions between the rich parishioners and the poor parishioners. On the one hand, the Gospel speaks of miracles; on the other hand, the second reading addresses the practicalities of the Church’s structure. That is the Church: miracles and structure. Without structure, how would we get anything done? Without miracles, what would be the point of all the structure? We have built a worldwide structure of dioceses and parishes in order to tell everyone about Jesus. However, what people really want are the miracles: to be healed, to be changed, to be forgiven by God. The Holy Spirit can bring the miracles, but only where there are people to work them.
The dilemma that St. James addresses is still present today: how do we build up the Church without betraying the reason for the Church? If a poor person of no renown joins the Church, we do not stop them. But, when a famous person, a wealthy person, an important person joins the Church, we make sure that they feel very welcome. Of course, we act this way, because it will not make the news that just another poor person wants to join. When a celebrity goes through RCIA, for instance, we can expect the paparazzi to show up at the Easter Vigil.
We cannot deny that wealthy people in the Church get special attention when they are very generous. They are named Knights of the Holy Sepulchre; they might get to meet the Pope; they certainly meet the bishop a few times each year. Does God want their money? No. He has no use for it. But let us be honest, the Church does. I like it when there are lights on in the church, and there is heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, microphones and speakers, and food for me to eat. And who will provide for the poor, if not those who are able to?
As I said, God does not want anyone’s money, but he does want their generosity. God wants each of us to know what it is to give to others. A greater amount does not signify a greater generosity. Jesus says that the poor widow, who gave one dollar, was more generous than all the others because they gave out of their abundance, but she gave out of her poverty. However, when it actually was time to repair the temple, her small gift would only buy a little, and the larger gifts, though they were less generous, would pay for most of the work.
So what are we to do? In the ideal Christian community, everyone gives as much as they are able, and then promptly forgets how much each person gave. In the world as it is, someone who gives a very large gift wants to be certain that it will not be wasted. Often, the people who are able to give the most are also the people with whom the pastor will consult on the financial care of the parish. They, after all, have the connections, and the business experience.
So what should we do? Do we need to make distinctions among ourselves, giving recognition to those who make our ministry possible? Yes. But having admitted to the importance of money, I will not agree that money is all-important, or even the most important. I know a woman, a poor woman, who works so hard in her parish, and prays so fervently, that everywhere she goes a great devotion to Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament springs up. When she moved, she left behind Perpetual Adoration with every hour doubly filled, and immediately began strengthening the devotion in her new parish. If I had to choose between her moving into my parish, or a generous millionaire, I know who has more to offer.
Perhaps, it seems unfair that the rich only have to write a check, and the famous only have to agree to appear at the parish festival, while the contributions of the poor—unless they are very extraordinary—are likely to go unnoticed. This world is unfair like that. I think that the Church ministers’ responsibility is not to ignore the generosity of wealthy people, but to be observant in seeing the generosity of every parishioner: the person who organizes Communion to the homebound, the person who puts in untold hours on the fundraiser, the person who makes sure that there is food at every funeral. I have heard people say, “If I won the lottery, I would give quite a donation to the Church.” How nice, but imaginary money won’t keep the church lights lit. The guy who comes in on his day off, to change the bulbs, does, though.
Sure, if there were enough money, we could hire people to do all that, but that would be a very sad parish. Not really alive, just pretending. Anyway, we could not hire people to spend hours every day in prayer, and I know that there are parishioners who do that. We could not hire people to work miracles; and what kind of Church would we be without miracles? We could not hire people to love other people for us; without love, the Church would be dead.
So, let us treat the rich man who comes into church well. Let us say, “Sit here please.” Then, let us treat the poor man who comes into church well. Let us say, “Sit right next to him, please.” I do not think that St. James is telling us to treat everyone equally badly. We should be going out of our way to treat everyone equally well. We should welcome each person to this church the same way we would welcome a king or the richest man: the way we would welcome Jesus.
Sure, there will be distinctions in this world: honors and dinners and such, but these will not matter in the end. The first reading is all about how the ways of this world are going to be overturned. There will be water in the desert; the blind will see; the mute will sing; and everyone will receive their recompense from God. The rich will be responsible to Jesus for whether they were generous enough with what he gave them; the famous will be responsible to Jesus for whether they used their God-given talents to glorify God rather than themselves; and every person will be responsible in this same way for how we used the money, the talents, the time, the strength, the health, and everything else that God gave us.
Purpose: To explicate what is contained in the new life offered us by Jesus Christ, exhorting the half-alive to be fully alive.
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 16, 2012
Readings: Is 50:5-9a • Jas 2:14-18 • Mk 8:27-35
Zombies are very, very scary. I think zombies might be the scariest of all the monsters. Zombies are so scary because they seem like they are alive, but then you realize that they are not. St. James is talking about zombies today, Zombie Christians. They seem like they have the new life of Christ. They sing the songs, and say all the right words, but then you suddenly realize that their faith is dead. They are here among us. In truth, all of us are in danger of becoming a zombie at any moment.
In the movies, zombies walk down the street moaning, “Braaaaaiiiiins!” That is not so distant from somebody wandering through life calling out “Muuhnneeey!” or “Viiiideo Gaaaaaaames!” or any of the other obsessions that people have in this world that make them oblivious to the needs of people around them. What good does it do anyone to believe that Jesus suffered and died for us, if they spend every moment of their own life in self-indulgence? The Resurrection cannot simply be a bit of trivia in the mind of a Christian. When Jesus rose from the dead, it was an invitation for each one of us to rise from our dreary and dead, purposeless lives to a new life, where we forget ourselves, and love other people. That is what it means to be alive in Christ.
How can we be fully alive? Jesus says: “Deny yourself.” Self-denial means learning to say “no” to ourself. The world does not understand why we should deny ourself anything. They think they feel most alive when they are without restriction. This is obviously false. If I eat without restriction until I weigh 1000 pounds, I am not fully alive. If I drink without restriction until I cannot control my actions, I am not fully alive. If I watch TV without restriction until I cannot go to sleep at night, I am not fully alive.
Is this what we say when we see someone in the throes of addiction: “Look how alive they are?” No, they look like a zombie. True freedom does not come when we throw away every restriction. True freedom comes when we cast off every chain holding us back, every time-wasting, money-wasting, effort-wasting, life-wasting chain holding us back. Addictions to food, pornography, the internet, television, alcohol, and drugs do not make a person free. When morality tells us that such-and-such a thing is wrong, it is simply saying that this thing will kill us, or at least prevent us from being fully alive.
Time is a measure of life. Every day that we wake up, until our last day, we have 24 hours to spend. To waste time, to kill time, is to be a zombie. We have to spend some time on ourselves: sleeping, eating, working, etc. This time is simply being used to sustain life. Every hour we spend on ourselves is in support of what we will do with the rest of the time. We put all this effort into keeping ourselves alive, educated, and rested. So, what are we going to do? If we deny our desire to simply kill the time, what will we do with it? What action could be so great that it is worth all the effort that we have to put into ourselves? Anything which is less than love as an answer to that question is an insufficient answer. If a person needs 23 hours a day to stay alive, just so that each day they can love for 1 hour, they are fully alive. If a person needs 12 hours a day to stay alive, and is just bored for the other 12 hours, they are a zombie. If we never get around to serving others, we are like plants that never flower.
Jesus says: “Take up your cross.” Sometimes, when people talk about this verse, they speak of their “cross” as personal suffering. Anything from arthritis, to disabilities, to other people, can be called “my cross.” This is half-true. The central mystery of the cross is not that Jesus suffered and died, but that he suffered and died for us. A cross is not whatever difficulties we happen to have in life. Everyone has difficulties; we have no choice about that. We take up the daily cross when we give our lives out of love for someone. Indeed, any suffering we experience in life can be a cross, but only if we embrace it, and offer it up.
When we help someone, we—if only for a moment—deny our own importance, acknowledging the other person’s importance. When we help someone, we are giving our life—if only a small portion of it—for them. Perhaps, this seems exaggerated to say that I gave my life to someone, but what is life other than a series of minutes? To give a few minutes to help someone is to give a little bit of your life for them. This is how we can imitate Jesus, who gave his life for us.
The last part of what Jesus says is: “Follow me.” To follow someone simply means to be with them wherever they go. Our way of being with God is prayer. As we converse with God, chains will bind our heart to him. Then, no matter where the world goes, we will stay close to him. As wonderful as spending our life helping others is, as indispensable as that is, it is not the highest use of our time. The greatest use of our life is spending time with God in prayer.
So, this is what it means to be fully alive. We do not want to become zombies. We come to Mass, thinking ourselves as Christians. But, the way of living that Jesus is calling us to is not exactly how we live. It is attractive, the idea of living in such a real way, but is it possible? That is what we have the saints for. They are proof for us that it is possible to be fully alive. Of course, we are going to sin; of course, we are going to fail; of course, we will be selfish and waste time. That is what confession is for. But as long as we never give up, but continue to begin again to live for others, and follow God, there is a spark of life in us that someday— in this world or the next—will burst into flame. Why wait? Why not begin living the new life of Christ right now?
Purpose: To blame sin on fear, showing the resolution of that fear in the love of God.
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 23, 2012
Readings: Wis 2:12, 17-20 • Jas 3:16-4:3 • Mk 9:30-37
A person’s actions reveal their psychology, above all, their fears. St. James teaches, in the second reading today, that wars and conflicts between people come from the conflict within each person. If we hate someone else, it is because we hate something inside ourselves. Otherwise, we might pity them or teach them, but we would not hate them. If we are rivals with someone else, it is because we are unsure of ourselves. Otherwise, we would just be glad to see someone succeed even more than we do.
Today, the twelve apostles were arguing about who was the greatest. In their culture, it was important to know the rankings of any group. The Twelve had been chosen from all Jesus’ disciples, being elevated to a higher place. Clearly, Simon, who was renamed Peter, had the highest place within that group of twelve. James and John were next, and as brothers, they came as sort of a pair. But, they wanted to replace Peter at the top, or at least, their mother wanted them to replace him. The other nine had to just fall in where they could. Perhaps, Judas was fourth, since he carried the money bag, or maybe Andrew, since he was the brother of Simon Peter. This kind of ranking was important to them. That is why they were arguing along the way.
What were the Apostles afraid of? Perhaps they were afraid that they would have to serve, instead of being served. Jesus reverses this by teaching them that the highest is the one who has to serve. “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all, and the servant of all.” This is most clearly stated after Jesus washes their feet at the Last Supper. To be first in the Kingdom of God, is to be the one with the most responsibility to care for others.
Why would the Apostles be afraid to serve? Perhaps, they think that the one who serves is unappreciated, unloved. They want to be the person whom Jesus gladly embraces as a friend, not the person who looks on at such a friendship while serving. John the Baptist knew that he was not worthy to loosen the strap on Jesus’ sandals. But, the Apostles are acting like young girls arguing over who is whose best friend. No one wants to be a third wheel, part of the supporting cast.
This is a basic human fear, being left out. We hate ,or love, inside jokes based on whether we are an insider. We all want someone to appreciate us, and someone to love us, unconditionally. When Eve ate that fruit because she thought that it would make her like God, she was afraid that she would miss out on something if she did not. When Adam ate the fruit because he did not want to lose Eve, he was afraid of being alone again. When Cain killed Abel, he was afraid of not being with God the way Abel was. All sin can be traced back to pride; all pride is a reaction to this fear of being insignificant and unwanted.
Aristotle talked about six categories of people according to how moral they were. There is the beastly person, who acts like an animal or even worse. There is the vicious person, who does bad things, avoiding being good. There is the incontinent person, who is sort of trying to be good, but is usually bad. There is the continent person, who is trying harder to be good, and generally succeeding. Then there is the virtuous person, who is naturally good, who is good without really trying. These first five categories are useful distinctions. But, it is the sixth category that we Christians are interested in: the divine human, who acts like a god among human beings.
Of course, the only person who was really divine was Jesus Christ; he actually was God among humans. However, the saints are examples for us of what Aristotle meant. To meet a living saint is to have an entirely new experience of humanity. We believe that, because of the Holy Spirit, it is possible for every Christian to become a saint, a person who seems completely different. Such a person is a witness to the truth of the Gospel. Christianity, without witnesses, is only an interesting idea. A saint is living proof that there is really something to the beliefs we hold.
So what makes a saint different from the rest? What separates the divine human from the other five types? They have resolved their fear of being left out. Not by becoming anti-social, or becoming their own best friend, or anything like that. They have discovered Someone who loves them, and will never stop loving them, no matter what happens. This Someone appreciates them the way an artist appreciates his own masterpiece. This Someone can never be hurt, nor destroyed, nor taken away. With a love like that, of what is there to be afraid?
Such a person will have finally gotten inside the innermost circle. How will people react to that? Everyone else can only consider themselves left out. They will react as in the first reading today: “Let us beset the just one, for he is obnoxious to us.” Such a person will be martyred. Temptations will come from every side trying to prove that the saint is not really different from the rest of us. Then, cruelty will come, hoping to make the saint lash out, or break. “With reviling and torture, let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness.” Finally, they will kill the saint to be rid of him. “Let us condemn him to a shameful death.” As they treated Jesus, so they have treated innumerable Christians throughout history.
When we see a saint, we must either be filled with jealousy or envy. If it is envy, we will hate them. If it is jealousy, we will want to be like them. Jesus’ message was that it is possible to be like him. He spoke of his Father in heaven with whom he has an unimaginably close relationship, but he taught us to call him “Our Father in Heaven.” What more could God do to assure us that he loves us? Jesus is inviting us into the innermost circle. If only we could see that God loves us—with a love that will never go away, no matter what—we would want nothing else. We would have no fears or worries. We would become like gods walking among human beings. We would serve everyone, love everyone, and build everyone up, because we would have no reason to fear our loss at their gain.
Purpose: To explain that rules of religion and morality cannot always be understood simplistically, but that does not mean they are false.
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 30, 2012
Readings: Nm 11:25-29 • Jas 5:1-6 • Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
Joshua tells Moses about people prophesying outside the official circle of prophecy. John tells Jesus about someone exorcising demons outside the official circle of discipleship. In both cases, the disciples want the teacher to stop such unofficial actions. In both cases, the teacher replies that he is glad that someone is using the power, even unofficially. Would Joshua rather that the prophecy of the Lord go untold? Would the disciples rather that the demons remained in the people? They have lost sight of the fact that good is being accomplished.
The disciples have a desire for a purity of religion. They want their religion to be simple, logical, and follow all the rules. The teachers know that religion is logical, but it is not simple because people are not simple. All the rules are followed, but the disciples do not know all the rules. This is similar to your telling a child about the rule against hitting other people. Then, they see a boxing match, and want to know why the two men are breaking the rules. You can try to explain that this does not break the rule, but they are unlikely to understand your reasoning. Some children will consider the boxers to be naughty. Other children will decide that rules are meant to be broken. They will hit a fellow student and declare that they were boxing.
In religion, we start with simple rules, such as “divorce is never permissible.” That rule is true as far as it goes. Then, a person sees this couple who are divorced, and this other couple who got an annulment. They may soon decide that the Church needs to stop making so many exceptions to the rules, and enforce it strictly like they did in “the good old days.” Or, they may decide that the rule on divorce does not apply anymore. On the one hand, we have extreme traditionalists; on the other hand, we have extreme liberals. In reality, the rules on divorce and annulment are just extremely complex, and always has been.
When Jesus came, he gave very simple teachings which need to be thought about and explained. Sometimes, the literal meaning of his teachings still makes sense, like when he said: “Love one another.” Sometimes, it does not make sense, like when he said: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” This does not mean that we are picking and choosing which teachings we are going to follow. Jesus gave his teachings to intelligent human beings. He knew that we would figure out what he meant, more or less. We are constantly figuring out his teachings. With over 2000 years of studying Jesus’ words to us, there have been enormous developments in doctrine. Meanwhile, we are also constantly misunderstanding Christ’s words, so that the Church has to face new problems all the time. The Church can never change a teaching, but we can always understand it better.
For instance, there are historical figures who tried to take Jesus literally and cut off parts of their body. That was never very popular, for obvious reasons. The principle behind the teaching is the point that: we are naïve if we leave the causes of sin lying around, while hoping to avoid sin, nonetheless. Jesus is saying that even if the cause of sin is as beloved to us as our own right hand, we should cut it off; even if the removal would be as painful as plucking out an eye, we should not hesitate. If a person is causing you to sin, cut them off. Better to enter heaven alone than to go to hell with friends. If your television is causing you to sin, pluck it out of your home. Better to enter heaven having missed all the best episodes of your favorite show than to enter hell having watched them. If the internet, or a particular website, is causing you to sin, sever the connection. Better to enter heaven crippled in this digital world, than to enter hell well-informed. The removal of these, or many other causes of sin, would be hard, but not as painful as plucking out your eye. To live without television, or the internet in this modern age, would be a serious disability, but not as bad as having a foot cut off. In other words, even if we are severe with ourselves, we will never exceed the examples that Jesus gave.
Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor,” and, “Woe to the rich.” The poor generally like to take this literally, while the rich do not. What we can say for certain is that not every rich person goes to hell. For our second reading today, St. James writes an indictment of the rich that seems to suggest that literal interpretation. However, he is using the word “rich” here in the way that Jesus used the word “poor,” in referring to an attitude, not an objective financial status. He is speaking of the rich in spirit, who rob the poor for profit, who murder people who stand in their way, who live for the purpose of luxury and pleasure. The rich in spirit are totally consumed with themselves. When the end comes, they will have saved nothing of real value. They will have no treasure in heaven. Everything they have will be destroyed. Someone could be rich in spirit while earning a minimum wage, though it is more difficult.
We must not minimize the teaching of Jesus, searching every rule for its exceptions. We are not being more religious if we try to take them all literally, trying to be “more Catholic than the Pope,” as they say. The Church gives us the catechism as a reference book in helping us understand some of the complexity. If you want to understand more, read more. We should also look to our pastors. Although, they are not perfect, Jesus Christ has given them to us as guides.