Welcome to CatholicPreacher! I use this page as a type of archive of my thoughts for my Sunday homily.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

ast night, I encountered a person who used Hitler as an example of someone they could not forgive. Look, I completely understand the symbolic nature of the statement, but Hitler has not done anything personally to them (as far as I know). The person was simply trying to help me understand that forgiveness and mercy have limits, and Hitler embodied the limit for them. On reflection, however, it seems that forgiveness is rarely denied because of some abstract sense of limit but rather is denied out of a profound sense of being personally wronged. The "wrong" done to the father (God) of the sons (humanity) in today's parable from Matthew was personal because of the disobedience--one rather insidious and the other overt---damaged a personal relationship, not simply defied a category of acceptable behavior.   
    The context for Jesus' teaching in Matthew: Jesus has just finished his Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem and is letting everyone know the religious leaders will enter heaven after tax collectors and prostitutes. It's not a great way to start off Passover in Jerusalem, but this was personal.
     As the passage from Ezekiel suggests, today is all about what the Greeks refer to as metanoia, which is literally a “change of mind” but also implies a complete “change of heart,” a change that finds its fulfillment in action. Today’s parable is all about our actions lining up with our words.
     The hero of our parable refused the wish of his father to work in the vineyard at first but changed his mind and began work. The other sons put up no resistance but did not go work in the vineyard; they served only with their lips. Our hero’s virtue was his change of heart and his follow-through of working in the vineyard. This is the son that did the will of the father.
      There is another level important for us in today’s parable. The un-favored son did comply externally while inwardly they betrayed their word; the lone dissenting son’s actions were always transparent, always honest so that when his metanoia occurred, the virtue did not lie solely in words but found fulfillment in his actions. His actions were the transparent manifestation of his heart.
     Our obedience to God must come from a change in heart, not simply a change in mind that gives lip service to obedience. God’s mercy is always most profound for those whose hearts have been changed, not simply a change in “words.” All of salvation history reveals God’s actions, not simply God’s words. God’s Word, Jesus, was God’s action. The epitome of God's love is a person, not a text or a system of laws or creeds. While doctrine, stories, history, and other texts are part of our heritage and integral to our faith, we must remember all things are subordinated to the person of Christ.
     Our lives are the testimony of our faith, not how well we can quote Scripture and point an accusing finger of disapproval at our neighbor. We confront sin with compassion and mercy, the way God has confronted our sin. God’s mercy confounds us because His forgiveness is personal; His love is everlasting.


Saturday, September 23, 2023

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

These parables over the last few Sundays are part of the “Five Discourses” of Jesus that help define the structure of Matthew’s gospel. The other discourses are The Sermon on the Mount, The Church, and the End Times.  Today’s parable is unique to Matthew’s gospel. 

Remember, parables were not so much moral lessons that we are familiar with in Western literature (i.e., Parable of the Tortoise and Hare, etc.). These parables were designed to convey a particular experience of our relationship with Christ/God. It isn’t so much striving to “get them” as letting them “get to us,” as theologian Robert Farrar Capon discusses in his book The Parables of Grace. Capon argues that the parables of Jesus are an icon of himself. They are “lights shining out of the house of faith itself, inviting us home” (3).

In today's parable, it seems that our landowner (God) is acting strangely in paying workers who were hired for a few hours for the same wage as those working a full day.  As in many of Jesus’ parables, there is something weird in the story. There isn’t anything particularly unusual about workers feeling as if they don’t get a just wage, but the rather strange practice of simply paying workers a full day’s wage for those working considerably less than a full day is strange indeed. Also, the landowner goes himself and hires workers towards the end of the day who everyone else has passed over; he is scraping the bottom of the barrel without seemingly needing to And what’s more puzzling is that he feels the need to entice these workers with a full day’s wage. I think it would be safe to say the landowner isn’t a very good businessman. And this gives us our first insight into the parable: The landowner’s actions are representative of God’s irrational generosity. Think of the Parable of the Sower, the farmer who broadcasts the precious commodity of seeds recklessly, with some of the seeds falling on good ground, some on rocky soil, and still others on hard dirt adjacent to the field; a pretty poor farmer!  God’s apparent foolishness is also on display as the father welcomes home his prodigal son with open arms and throws him an extravagant party after squandering his inheritance and turning his back on his family.

All of these parables tell us something essential about God, which Jesus highlights once again in today’s parable: God is hopelessly in love with his creation, evidenced by his divine dysfunctional behavior we call God’s mercy.  The common denominator in these parables, and especially in today’s parable, is God’s grace. A grace that pushes back at our notion of being able to justify receiving God’s love.

The really good news in our parable today is that the kingdom of heaven is not what you have achieved with your life’s work or how much of a failure to achieve moral goodness you have been; it's about where you are with your relationship with God right now. God never stops reaching for you; the moment you accept His embrace, you enter eternity.  

Friday, September 15, 2023

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This week, we commemorated the attacks on September 11th by remembering the fear, anger, and profound sadness that overwhelmed us some twenty-two years ago. For some, losing family or friends in one of the attacks becomes the occasion for feeling some of the pain again. Anger is also revisited for many.

I remember the powerful feeling of being vulnerable and then quickly transitioning to a blind anger that suggested we make a glass coffee table of the Middle Eastern countries hostile to the United States. Of course, I quickly realized how such an action would kill millions of innocent people. This anger surprised and frightened me. I soon witnessed this anger in my fellow citizens play out in attacks on anyone who appeared to be Middle Eastern, and I experienced how difficult it is to forgive.

Today’s gospel is very clear: If you seek forgiveness and mercy from God, you must also be merciful and forgive those who have sinned against you. The indebted servant is shown mercy in the parable, and the debt of ten thousand talents (3.48 billion dollars in today’s money!) is forgiven. Clearly, such a debt could not be paid in hundreds of lifetimes.  What follows is equally astounding. The servant who was shown mercy shows no mercy towards another servant who owes him about one hundred days’ worth of wages (100 denarii). Of course, word reached the lord, who had shown this servant mercy, and the lord reversed his decision, replying, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I mercy on you?” 

The parable ends with Jesus remarking, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”  

Notice that Jesus is not simply saying the act of forgiveness is sufficient, but that the forgiveness needs to be from the heart. In other words, it is not enough to fulfill the letter of the law; your actions must come from a deeper part of you: your heart.

If we go back and follow the parable’s narrative again, we notice a couple of elements. First, the original debt is impossibly large and physically impossible to repay. Secondly, the debt of the second slave to the first is manageable, although sizable enough to matter. What is important here is that Jesus is suggesting that before you forgive, you must reconcile; hearts must be changed. Anyone can shake hands and say “I’m sorry,” and still allow hatred and fantasies of revenge to fester until some new offense emerges.

So, are we to forgo gestures of forgiveness until we really mean it “from our hearts”? No!  But we should realize that the gesture must be a promise for earnestly pleading with God through the Holy Spirit to change our hearts. Last week’s Psalm 94 records God’s remarking his people had a “hardness of heart” despite having witnessed “all of my [God’s] works.” When we pray as we try and find forgiveness in our hearts, we pray that our hearts may be softened towards the one who offended us. We pray that God takes our “heart of stone” and replaces it with a “heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).  Forgiving isn’t meant to satisfy our need to look righteous, to “come out on top,” but to foster a deep humility that even to forgive properly must be a grace bestowed upon us by God. As William Sloane Coffin said: “God’s forgiveness is more than a blessing; it’s a challenge.”

Friday, September 8, 2023

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Although both Old Testament and gospel readings this morning speak of sin and the duty of confronting the sinner, it is easy to go no further than separating from the sinner and going about one’s business, content that the community is a better place without them. This rather myopic reading of Scripture “misses the mark” if we take it no further.

Ezekiel was a prophet in exile, well over a thousand miles from his home in what today is Iraq. As a priest, he no longer could perform his priestly function, so God appointed him to explain why they were in exile (faithlessness in practice) and a vision of a new Israel restored and closer to God.

Likewise, in the gospel, while it can seem that Jesus is simply preaching what to do with unrepentant sinners (treat them as you would tax collectors and Gentiles: separation), perhaps one could also consider the more important lesson of forgiveness than communal purity.

With whom did Jesus seek communion? He sought out those not included in traditional Jewish society: tax collectors and Gentiles, to name two outcast groups. Likewise, while today’s text discusses the seriousness of sin within the Christian community, its focus is on the extraordinary lengths a community should go to re-evangelize those whose actions separate them from the community. While we need to clearly identify sin, we should focus on forgiveness because sin can destroy communion and community.  The sins in today’s gospel seem to be the failure to reconcile, the great pride of self-righteousness, anger, and despair.

Jesus begins by announcing what to do “if your brother sins against you.” This isn’t some sin against the Law or a laundry list of do’s and don’ts; this sin is personal. If we had to approach everyone using this method for even serious sins, we would be spending most of our time confronting one another and very little time for anything else. This sin here is when we feel personally offended by someone in our community, our brother (or sister!).

 Personal grudges and long-simmering unresolved feelings of ill will are a much greater poison to a faith community than failure to live up to high moral standards. Taking personal offense at someone for living up to a moral code is not helpful. We should refuse to tolerate unresolved conflict, things that destroy communion.

One who refuses to forgive is living in greater sin than the action that occasioned the offense. Such stubbornness involves at least three serious sins: pride, anger, and despair. Our community of brothers and sisters, to follow Jesus’ model, should be a community whose personal conflicts should be resolved through mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. To read this story as simply one confronting another about sin—-though there is a place for this in the community—the real culprit here is latent anger, pride, and despair brought about by those who have been offended.
St. Paul, in today’s lesson, reminds us of the true hierarchy of righteousness:

“Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

We fulfill the law in loving our neighbor; forgiveness is the single greatest act that “loosens” sin; pride, anger, and despair keep sin “bound” and lead to death.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost


     The words of passion from Jeremiah in his love affair with God remind me of the “burning” of Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to a Naked Beauty”: “As if you were on fire from within./The moon lives in the lining of your skin.”  Jeremiah complains that loving God puts him at odds with the world and causes him to suffer; he is not a willing sufferer but has been seduced by God. The usual translation is “duped,” but a mystical tradition within the Church that renders patah as “seduced,” and I think it is appropriate, especially for this passage.  Jeremiah’s love for God is all-encompassing. He is in love with a being, caught up in a passion that will not be denied.  Indeed, these lines could have been taken from the lover’s complaint of a Shakespearean sonnet.

“I say to myself, I will not mention him,
I will speak in his name no more.
But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in; I cannot endure.”

            This intensity finds its resonance in today’s gospel reading from Matthew, where God’s love for humanity is likewise intense and “foolish” in the person of Jesus, who realizes that he will soon suffer and die because of this passionate love for humanity.  That is why he sharply rebukes Peter, whom he had praised just moments before, and suggests that seeking to avoid suffering is an inclination from Satan. Clearly, Peter loves Jesus and wants Jesus to avoid suffering and death. Peter wants the Triumphant King, not the Suffering Servant, but clearly, Jesus is the Suffering Servant, and many who followed him equated him with Jeremiah, for whom the Suffering Servant was likely penned (some thought Jesus as the resurrected Jeremiah).

            Of course, in word and action, Peter was perhaps the most passionate of all the disciples. I think Jesus realized that what is essential for the continuation of the mission was passion, not administrative acumen (though we need not find them as opposing qualities). Peter’s passion needed to be directed toward God’s mission of embracing humanity. Our purest expression of love for God is our love for those whom God has created.  Jesus makes falling in love with God less of a mystical affair and one of flesh and blood reality. Jesus’ Great Commission (John 15:12) isn’t about loving God directly but loving one’s neighbor. It is in loving one’s neighbor, then, that the love of God becomes flesh and blood. Like God, our love will be often rejected, and we will indeed pay a high price for having been “seduced” to love the God we can see in each other because our love of Christ compels us beyond the love of family, or nation, or tribe, and seeks the love of God in all, not just among the "lovable."

Friday, August 25, 2023

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost


Who do you say that I am?

The story in Isaiah this morning about Shebna being denounced by Isaiah is classic. Shebna, a royal steward of the palace, is being rebuked because he has taken upon himself honors associated with the king (viz., having a tomb built in the place reserved for the Davidic kings). Shebna was the one who controlled access to the king, hence the phrase “when he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open”(Is.22:23). This is juxtaposed in today’s readings with Jesus’ declaration to Peter, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt.16:20). It’s all about the power to grant access, and Peter has been rewarded with this power through his confessional statement to Jesus’ question of identity, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt.16:17).  For Roman Catholics, the whole “key” issue is understood as referring to the office of St. Peter; he was the first leader of the church, and the primacy of this office has been handed down to present day. As a rather rough generalization, The Orthodox (and Old Catholics) have a more collegial view, with the “keys” power being distributed evenly among the episcopacy, while the Protestant view generally asserts that the entire body of the faithful has been given the “keys.” 
It is easy to get wrapped up in the discussion as to whom the power of access has been granted to “loose and bind” and forget Jesus’ original question: “Who do you say that I am?” Perhaps the link between the Old Testament and the gospel has more to do with simply a study of ecclesiastical pedigree. Perhaps it also has something to do with the cautionary tale of Shebna, who abrogated the power of the king for himself to allow the power of the office to go to his head and, as a result, lost the office altogether. 
Positions of power within the church today, as in all positions of authority, can become extensions of personal egos. The larger the institution becomes, and the more the power of that institution becomes concentrated in the hands of the few, the legacy becomes not “good news” but an obsession with control. The church, divinely instituted, is administered by humans, and humans have a lousy track record with unchecked control. Such abuse of authority in the Roman Catholic Church is an easy target, but the problem of control extends well beyond the borders of the Roman Catholic Church. What is clear is that Jesus’ question can get buried too easily in the “court intrigue” and political power plays in any church. 
           While the institutional church is for Jesus, its members must be from Jesus. It is not enough to proclaim ideological affiliation; we must animate our ideology with a living relationship with God through Christ. While the Creed may guide us, it is our responsibility to finally access the deeper reality opened to us by the church. As an institution, the institutional church will never be “good news,” but only the members of the body working across denominational lines, responding to Jesus’ call to confess him through their lives as The Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

     Jesus’ action with the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel is troubling for us who experience the universalism of the Church and the belief that God has offered salvation to the entire world. However, the church of Matthew’s gospel were Jews, and the Canaanites were well outside God’s covenant with the Jewish people, and it seems Jesus sided with the popular understanding of such a separation. Although this story is also present in the Gospel of Mark, the change in Matthew to a Canaanite from a Syro-Phoenician woman speaks of Matthew’s desire to emphasize how much outside God’s covenant she was. Add to this Jesus’ words of rebuke, and the stage is set rhetorically for what comes next.

The woman’s response to Jesus’ rebuke of “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” with, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters” is a coup of a well-tempered response that upends Jesus’ harshness; it is a moral drama being played out in front of a crowd who sides with Jesus. So what does Jesus do? He proclaims her daughter is healed because of her great faith to see beyond what the crowd saw: an insurmountable barrier to God’s grace. This event is on the heels of Jesus proclaiming in front of the Pharisees and scribes, “…it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” The Canaanite woman is yet another instance of Jesus proclaiming God’s reign isn’t localized, or dependent upon the traditions of “the elders”, but upon compassion and justice, making a strong connection with the first reading from Third Isaiah, which asserts that God’s justice and mercy is also a function of allowing “foreigners” to serve at the Temple if they agree to keep the Sabbath and the Law of the Covenant. To do so would be a great act of faith not only for the foreigners but also for the Jewish people.
Contempt for “the foreigner” is a cultural characteristic, it seems, for many. Most recently, children and young adults seeking refuge in this country have had to endure not only exile from their homes and families but also the contempt born of fear from many in our country and some in our church. Jesus’ morality drama played out to staunch the flow of animosity for the Canaanite who represented the consummate foreigner. Jesus’ clear message to the crowd: Faith trumps creed because faith is the foundation of creed, not the other way around.
We worship a living God, not a living document. Too often, text takes the place of a living faith. Where the community’s faith is strong, the “traditions of the elders” are always held accountable by living faith. When creed runs contrary to the living faith, it is discarded or altered to reflect the current reality. Ours is a living relationship with God, not a relationship with a text; that is simply another more insidious form of idolatry. Our true worship is as old as Isaiah in establishing justice and righteousness and calling brother or sister all who nurture faith in a living God.