Homilies for September 2020

For September 6, September 13, September 20, and September 27

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 6, 2020

Readings: Ez 33:7-9   Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9 (8) Rom 13:8-10 Mt 18:15-20 https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/090620.cfm 

It doesn’t take long before every Catholic is confronted with the fact that, despite the Church’s immaculate nature in Christ, she is composed of sinners. Because of this, Christ’s teaching on fraternal correction is not extrinsic and exceptional to the Christian life, but is interior and constitutive. If anyone has yet to feel the exigency for such Christian instruction, they have failed to truly engage the life of the Church and assume her inner form.

Today’s Gospel reading, a treatment on reconciliation, reveals something of the interiority of the life of the Christ, something of its truly paradoxical form. Located in Matthew 18, the pericope is part of the Gospel’s fourth great sermon, known as the sermon on the Church. We approach these words in the context of the majestic Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, as well as the unusual dyad of Peter’s vesting of authority and fierce rebuke. Ultimately the question of reconciliation finds its locus in the question of Christian greatness (Mt. 18:1), the answer of which is revealed to be spiritual childlikeness. In the end, Christ’s instruction to his apostles on the praxis of reconciliation finds its true source and end in the childlike heart fashioned after that of the Son.

Perhaps the most instructive word in today’s Gospel is the Greek preposition συν, meaning “with.” It is found attached to two words — συμφωνήσωσιν (symphōneō) and συναγωγή (synagō). The former is where we derive the word symphony, or the harmony of consonance. Here it is applied to relationships: “If two of you agree (symphōneō) on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Mt. 18:19). The latter, which plays off it in the following verse, is the root of the word synagogue, or gathering together: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20). More specifically, a synagogue is a “being led together,” and in this context, being led into the name of Christ. It is not something that we accomplish, but something that is fulfilled in us. The rabbinic maxim, that the Shekinah is present when we are present to the Torah, is now fulfilled by the incarnate eucharistic presence of the God-man. This is the mystery of the ecclesial center, one in which we must ever strive to more deeply penetrate.

It is oftentimes the temptation in community life to make transient and delimited aspects of the life the grounds of fraternal unity. Personality, interests, or any other qualitative evaluation of ecclesial relationships, as good as they may be, cannot provide the authentic grounds of a true union of hearts and minds. In short, community does not lie solely in the realm of human experience. The unity of Christians, which is the unity of the Church, is in God alone. Just as St. Augustine describes the Holy Spirit as the soul of the Church, so too can we think of the that animating and unifying principle of those inserted into Christ to be the Spirit.

But the Spirit requires a certainly existential pliability, as God’s infinite wisdom never coerces human freedom. Herein lies the childlike, that freedom exhibited in total availability to others, which rejects the illusory resentments of our self-reliant adulthood. To be a child in God means to know how to reconcile on the basis of truth, which is nothing other than reconciling in the Logos himself. In grace we receive the clarity to assume responsibility for what is ours, as well as the courage to forebear the rest. But everything starts in the utter dependence of the child, whose inner correspondence of identity and relation begets the most perfect foundations in the humility of love.

Apostolic fraternity, a microcosm of a larger ecclesial society, is both symphonic and synagogic — a harmonious gathering drawn together in the unity of hearts. When St. Augustine wrote his Rule in the fifth century, he described the common life of the Christian faithful in a similar manner: “The chief motivation for your sharing life together is to live harmoniously in the house and to have one heart and one soul seeking God.” 1

The symphonic nature of Christian life defies the world’s attempts at a de-personalizing uniformity. Even within the Church there is the perennial temptation to self-constructed forms, categorical holiness, all of which are dictated by the measurements of man. As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis concludes, “the life of the Church must be marked by a continual quest for peace and unity — not peace and unity as a vague utopian ideal out there in the future, but peace and unity as the full realization here and now of the deepest identity of the Church as already being the Body of Christ.” 2 Or as St. Paul exhorts us: “Owe to no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8).

Only Christians living in spiritual proximity will require Christ’s praxis of reconciliation. And those with the courage to follow it are truly the “watchman for the house of Israel” (Ez. 33:7). To live correction within the honest audacity of Christian charity reveals not the failure of community, but the sign of its health. To be the watchman of the brother is to understand the radically humanizing process undertaken when reconciliation is done according to the mind of Christ. When we tend to our relationships with great care, we tend to the presence of Christ, manifest where two or three are gathered.

The Christian of the modern world must live with an underlying relational certainty — that despite ourselves, Christ holds us together in a unity not found in this world. As Giussani notes, this is contrary to the fragility of modern man’s relationships: “we might construct skyscrapers, atomic bombs, the most subtle systems of philosophy, but we no longer build the human because it consists of relationships.” 3 In a world whose most terrible affliction is the uncertainty of relationships, there may be no greater witness than the symphonic fraternity of Christ’s faithful.

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 13, 2020

Readings: Sir 27:30-28-7 Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12 Rom 14:7-9 Mt 18:21-35 https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/091320.cfm

The times in which we find ourselves are marked by an increasing obsession with justice — not only the virtue of justice, which consists in giving others what they are rightfully owed, but a more vindictive mindset, often called by the same name of justice, that primarily wants to punish the wrongdoer. The words from the parable of today’s Gospel, “Pay what you owe” (Mt. 18:28), echo with their full sense of harsh demand.

Christians approach the question of worldly injustice from a radically different perspective. In a paradoxical fulfillment, the God-man, Jesus Christ, fulfills the demands of justice not through worldly power and political advancement, but through the infinity of his redemptive love. All demands imposed upon man to create his self-justified utopia are now dissolved in the mystery of God’s saving plan.

Though the redemption of the world has been objectively completed, it remains the project of grace to allow the saving work of Christ its complete penetration of our souls. The logic of Christ’s work — that forgiveness alone establishes communion — likewise becomes the inner form of Christian conversion. In other words, we come to communion in ourselves and with others through the constant decision for Christ’s forgiveness. It is this that today’s parable of the merciless servant so vividly concludes: “You wicked servant … should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Mt. 18:33).

Our obstinance in extending mercy begins when the wounded heart constricts upon itself. And three things follow. First, we live in the continual awareness of those who have hurt us, and not those who have loved us. Second, we cling to the debts of others in the vain attempt to stabilize our lives (for there is always a twisted payoff when we withhold mercy). Third, our hearts freeze in the moment of forgiveness because in it we encounter the radical indebtedness of our human existence. The response to this trap of consciousness begins in the words of St. Paul: “None of us lives to himself […] whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rm. 14:8). As the commentator Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis describes, in our reliance on God, we find an impossible debt — and there, the fullness of joy.

Such chronic indebtedness as a quality of our very being might irritate our innate sense of independence and self-reliant individualism; and yet, at the same time, it is the very ground of spiritual childhood and the potential source of endless joy. To be radically and permanently indebted to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ — for our very existence, for every breath of every moment for the blessed state of being forgiven and reconciled with his Heart — is the foundation of the only relationship and friendship that ultimately matter.4

From the acknowledgement of our own dependence on God we can begin to release the prisoners of our hearts, and lastly enter into the unfathomable depths of God’s mercy. Only there will we find true stability and perfect healing.

When we reflect on the Lord’s Prayer, we realize the conditionality of forgiveness: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Mt. 9:12). The logic of this conditionality is already there in the wisdom of Sirach: “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done and your sins will be pardoned when you pray” (Sir 28:2). The forgiveness of the other conditions our reception of the mercy of God, which in turn measures our relationship to him. Everything stands or falls with the decision for mercy, to give to the other what they do not deserve. And it is precisely in this that we discover true forgiveness to exist at the deepest level of the human heart. Mercy means we actually remove the debt, and not permit ourselves the armor of casual indifference. Any forgiveness that still holds to the debt as a bludgeon for future combat is insufficient.

What Dostoevsky wrote of love describes well the experience of mercy: “Love indeed is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” To give someone mercy can be a terrible experience, a freeing yet painful challenge. One thinks of the scene in the movie Braveheart when William Wallace kneels before the father of his dead wife; a hand, shaking with anger, descending to bless the enemy’s head. Mercy means to give to another what they do not deserve. That means that we have to give something that is not theirs — something of us has to die in the act of mercy. Were it not for the self-disclosure of the Trinity, mercy would make no sense — an illogical assault against the order of justice. But when the fullness of God pours forth from his eternal fullness and bestows on us that which we do not deserve, a new order unfolds within creation.

The Latin word for mercy, misericordia, is in fact three words: misere, cor, dare. Misere is where we derive “misery”; thus the harshness and dread of mercy is connected to the encounter with the “miserableness” of the other. When one adds cor and dare (heart and verb “to give”), we see the fuller meaning: mercy means “to give one’s heart to the miserable.” Mercy does not live in the realm of our giftedness, our strengths, even our virtues; it exists in the dark, miserable places of the human heart. But the place of mercy is different than the content of mercy, which is what makes it fruitful and healing. Mercy is nothing other than love in miserable places. We are far from the notion that mercy is a sentiment; for the beauty of merciful love is radiant, as Claudel says, “only when it is not accompanied by gratification.”

The mercy of God, lived out in the forgiveness of the Christian heart, is the circulating life blood of the Church. It makes possible the impossible — the ever-expansive and entirely unlimited communion of broken human beings that transcends the tragedy of their world existence. It is the life of heaven on earth, but one that rests conditionally on mercy, on our decision for or against the brother whose debt is already forgiven by God.

 

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 20, 2020

Readings: Is 55:6-9 • Ps 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18 (18a) • Phil 1:20c-24, 27a • Mt 20:1-16a https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/092020.cfm 

Comparison is one of the most fruitless endeavors in the spiritual life; but it is at the same time one we are so quickly and regularly drawn into. Today’s Gospel, the parable of the landowner in Matthew 20, elucidates this human proclivity and draws it into immediate and stark contrast with the liberality of God’s goodness. Indeed, from our limited perspective, God’s liberality seems excessive, ineffective, and disproportionate. It is a scandal to our logic of comparison, an assault on calculations and all semblance of control. Our interpretation of this divine liberality comes from a constricted and limited vision, which oftentimes equates God’s wisdom with the appearance of folly. But as is so often the case, that initial instinct to compare leads not just to an errant judgment on the providence of God’s plan, but ultimately into the dead end of resentment.

Despite the folly of this comparative thinking, it is an occasion of conversion, a work of purification. In some ways it begins with rooting out a presupposition we hear subtly echoed in today’s Gospel: “They thought they would receive more” (Mt. 20:10). Herein lies the first problem — the false expectation that is always accompanies the spirit of comparison. To this the landowner responses: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Mt. 20:15). A closer translation of the Greek reveals a more telling rebuke: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” (ἢ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός εἰμι). The problem is not the distributive justice of the landowner, but the spiritual vision of the laborer. The “evil eye” is connected to the inordinate attachment to wealth, to that deep-seated possessiveness in the human heart. Envy arises precisely in and through the distortion of this vision. And though the landowner appeals to him as a companion and friend (Mt. 20:13), the laborer is already locked within the slavish logic of comparison and resentment.

By nature, we tend towards the idle and purposeless life of a drifter. It is into this that Christ descends, awakening within us the human desire for meaning, for action, for love. In the bestowal of a new identity, namely, the work of the kingdom, God allows us the potential of new self-discovery in him. But the lasting significance and deepest importance is not something that we can derive, but something we must receive. To the extent that we realize the profound wastefulness of divine grace in our own souls is the measure by which we come to love the way he so liberally squanders it upon others. On this point, von Balthasar comments: “Divine thinking and doing are labeled mercy and forgiveness, yet, as grace, they contain in themselves the demand of conversion, a demand that is entirely just when viewed from the perspective of grace.” 5

This is the heart of a disciple’s ongoing conversion, learning the mind of Christ through conformity to his will. In this way, St. Paul reminds us, “let your manner be worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27). Christian perfection is not so much the flawless execution of human activity as it is the pure readiness of a mind surrendered in total freedom. If the vineyard is the kingdom and Christ the King, then in the words of Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, everything begins in the surrender of our preconceptions:

I cannot be a subject of Christ the King as long as I insist on my own rights as competing against those of others […] Comparison of self with others, self-interested calculation, sliding scales based on relative standards, and, at bottom, that most indestructible of all principles of the ego, “Under no circumstances must I allow myself to be cheated of what is my due”: these are criteria for judging good and evil that instinctively lurk in all of us, regardless of cultural background, level of education, or socio-economic status. 6

We begin to disabuse ourselves of this logic of self-interest when we first begin to mistrust our own proclivity to comparison. In other words, a new life begins when we humbly acknowledge our own eyes are “evil,” leading us not to the reality of the other but to the illusion of our own egos. From here the Lord begins to lift and guide us above the truncations of our own reasoning and the confines of our own plans. As his divine magnificence conquers our squabbling pusillanimity, our hearts begin to adhere more and more to God, and less and less to the things of the world. It is this that St. Augustine speaks to in his Rule when he writes, “It is better to need less than to have more.” 7

The Augustinian vision of uti-frui (to use the things of the world in order to enjoy God) is not a rejection of the world, but a more authentic embrace of the natural order of human loves. In it we come to the depths of human freedom, only possible in grace, which not only reveal the wisdom of divine liberality, but make capable our participation in it. With the prophet Isaiah, then, we can take in God’s words with loving hearts: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Is. 55:9).

 

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 27, 2020

Readings: Ez 18:25-28 • Ps 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14 • Phil 2:1-11 or 2:1-5 • Mt 21:28-32 https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/092720.cfm

It is hard to imagine a more disparaging line to a first-century Pharisee than Christ’s words in today’s Gospel: “The tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt. 22:31). It is as if the entire religious mind of Judaism is being turned over and recast, in a nearly impossible manner. How could the extension of heaven occur to those most incompetent and obstinate in the ways of the Law? Clearly Christ is manifesting deeper currents of grace than the mere external practices of the religious observant.

It begins with the question of self-preoccupation, a perennial human temptation that has gained noticeable prominence in our technocratic age. Self-preoccupation is the application of human thought towards things and relationships which arises first within itself. It is not that others are not accounted for; in fact, they can become objects of obsession in the self-preoccupied mind. The challenge of Jesus is that, to enter into the life of lived discipleship, the framework of self-preoccupation must be dismantled, so that all things can be understood in terms of the mission to service.

“Man exists to praise, reverence, and serve God, and by this means to save his soul,” writes St. Ignatius of Loyola as the “First Principle and Foundation” of his Spiritual Exercises. Everything must begin in relation to God, a relation of dependence and humble service. And hard as it is for our modern ears to hear, the meaningfulness we may or may not derive from such service is not the condition of its truthfulness.

Something found wanting in the Pharisees is present in the tax collectors and harlots. It is something located within the virtue of humility, that distinctively Christian habit made possible by the self-disclosure of the Incarnate God. As St. Paul explains in today’s epistle, humility is diametrically opposed to the conceited posture of the self-preoccupied: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).

Our self-constructed patterns of life, much we impose a priori upon the designs of providence, when broken down, create the space for the other — and the real acknowledgement of their greater importance. Allowing the mystery of the other to present themselves requires the trust to follow the path of non-comprehension; for we are simply incapable of figuring out the other, let alone God. But this relational via negativa is not degenerative, but freeing, for it actually lets things be, a participation in the Marian fiat.

Though the call to humility is in the foundations of Gospel’s call to conversion, it is not the most central aspect of today’s Gospel. The parable of the two sons, which we read today in Matthew 21, reveals the chronic tension between saying and doing, a tension that cuts through the very heart of human existence. The one son lives in the delusion of his own self-righteousness, saying one thing and doing the other. The other, though obstinate and even defiant at first, reveals the truth of Christian conversion: that the correspondence of saying and doing is greater than the objective and assessable exteriors of practice. The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel expresses this in its essence: “Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die” (Ez. 18:28).

The conversion of the son happens first in his mental consideration, what Aristotle called phrónēsis. This is the wisdom to judge the rightness of a decision in practical action, coming to realize that his human flourishing does not always correspond to what is most naturally desirable. Within the tension of saying and doing, the drama of human authenticity in Christ plays out. For this reason, the son “regretted” his first decision (Mt. 21:29). The Greek word for regret, metamelomai, is similar to its cousin noun, metanoia, meaning conversion. The second son’s change of heart and decisive turn of action began in his regret, his metamelomai. Literally this translates as “after-care,” which implies that his conversion began when his prior decision became an anxiety to him. So often we hurry through life, without reflection or examen. We flee from the present because of our wounds in the past, and charge into the world of activity for the sake of distraction. But the joys of newfound assent can only be discovered when we can acknowledge our regrets in Christ.

Jesus delivers the parable of the two sons upon his arrival in Jerusalem, on the cusp of his culminating work of redemption. He is approaching the hour, that moment of absolute culmination upon which all of history waits. Within it we perceive that the heart of God desires not the performing rectitude of the self-preoccupied, but the regretful conversion of the truly humble heart. In these final days of his human life, he draws out once again to us that, above all, he desires a heart meek and humble, after his own.

 

  1. St. Augustine, Rule, Chapter 1, paragraph 2.
  2. E. Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Vol. 2, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 629.
  3. L. Giussani, Religious Sense (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press,  1997), 19.
  4. E. Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Vol. 2 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 645.
  5. H.U. von Balthasar, Light of the Word: Brief Reflections on the Sunday Readings, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 129.
  6. E. Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Vol. 3, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013), 234.
  7. St. Augustine, Rule, Chapter 3, paragraph 5.
Fr. John Nepil About Fr. John Nepil

Father John Nepil is a priest of Denver, Colorado and a member of the priestly association of the Companions of Christ. Having finished a doctorate in dogmatic theology at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome, he is now a member of the academic and formation faculty of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.

Comments

  1. FR JOHN IS OBVIOUSLY A VERY LEARNED THEOLOGICAL PRIEST. BUT THE VOCABULARY
    OF HIS HOMILY FOR THE 23rd SUNDAY WOULD BE LOST ON THE CONGREGATION IN MY
    CHURCH. IT IS A GOOD EXEGESIS OF THE SCRIPTURE, AND SUITABLE FOR A LECTURE IN
    A SEMINARY, BUT I DOUBT IF IT WOULD BE SUITABLE FOR A SUNDAY MASS CONGREGATION.
    BLESS YOU….Fr Laurence J Mayne (stokm@btinternet.com)
    ST OSWALD’S, 20A TANSLEY AVENUE, COPPULL, PR7 5DJ, ENGLAND

    • Avatar Deacon Joe Yannotta says:

      I agree, we are not trying to overstate or restate the Gospel message. We need to reach our people in “PLAIN SPEAK.” Delivering a homily with so many “ten dollar” words not only makes the listener tune out but can often turn them off.

      Deacon Joe Yannotta St. Edna Catholic Church, Arlington Heights, Illinois

    • Avatar Dcn John Cruz says:

      I agree that Fr John’s homily was somewhat academic but one cannot deny the nuggets that can be applicable when preparing one’s homily for the congregation. Pax,

      Dcn John Cruz
      At Margaret Mary, Chino, California

  2. Just found these homilies today (Sept 27), and found today’s homily clear and beautifully explained.
    Far too many homilists today fill their 15 minutes with happy talk, and trying to be “hip”, or relevant for the events of the day. Let’s get back to staying “on point.” Great homily for the 26th Sunday, Fr John.
    Jim
    Tucson, Az

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